Aren’t nebulae supposed to be, well, round. And blood-red in color to cap off the creepiness factor. What gives? Astronomers think they *may* be able explain away the Red Rectangle Nebula’s odd shape as an optical illusion but its crimson color still has them scratching their heads.
Astronomers think that the odd rectangle shape may be somewhat of an illusion, created by the angle at which we view the Red Rectangle Nebula (also known as HD 44179). Located relatively close to us, at 2,300 light-years away, the Red Rectangle Nebula may actually be two cones aligned tip-to-tip, giving it the odd appearance of some sort of stairway to heaven. Astronomers explained in ever-so-articulate geek-speak:
“The unusual shape of the Red Rectangle is likely due to a thick dust torus which pinches the otherwise spherical outflow into tip-touching cone shapes. Because we view the torus edge-on, the boundary edges of the cone shapes seem to form an X. The distinct rungs suggest the outflow occurs in fits and starts.”
The unusual color however, is still unexplained.
“At the nebula’s center is an aging binary star system that surely powers the nebula but does not, as yet, explain its colors. The unusual colors of the nebula are less well understood and speculation holds that they are partly provided by hydrocarbon molecules that may actually be building blocks for organic life.”
The picture above (shot through the Hubble Space Telescope which is able to capture features that cannot be seen by ground-based telescopes looking through Earth’s turbulent atmosphere) has given astronomers plenty to ponder. Astronomers theorize that the Red Rectangle Nebula could be transformed into a planetary nebula as its cool central star becomes a hot white dwarf over the next few thousand years. Possibly at that time, the shape of the nebula will shift to a more traditional appearance.
For now however, the odd-looking nebula remains an enigma that tweaks our fantastical imaginations. As one reader commented after noting the nebula’s moth-like appearance:
“I, for one, welcome our new Moth overlords and I’d like to remind them that I can be helpful in rounding up the unbelievers.”