Just when you started to think that predicting the future was just not possible – The European Southern Observatory has used their Very Large Telescope (yep, that’s what they named it), located in Chile, to take the world’s most detailed image of the Medusa nebula, showing us what fate our own sun most likely will face in billions of years.
The Medusa nebula is located in the Gemini star constellation (also known as The Twins), and that means we look at it from a distance of approximately 1,500 light-years. It’s got an impressive diameter of four light-years across, but is still very hard to observe from Earth, which explains why it took that Very Large Telescope to do the job of taking the photos.
The gas moves with a speed of 50 kilometers per second, and that was one of the factors that ruled out the possibility that this nebula could be a supernova remnant, which was one of the theories back in the time when it was first discovered. The gas in a supernova remnant moves a lot faster than that – 30,000 kilometers per second …
The photo above is colored to show the existence of hydrogen (red glow) and the oxygen gas (green) that actually reaches far longer out into space than this image can show. The nebula consists of a dying star in the middle, that has started to eject its mass in the shape of colorful gas clouds. This goes on for tens of thousands of years, and in the last transformation phase the star turns into a white dwarf and stays that way.
It’s the ultraviolet radiation emitted from the extremely hot star that makes atoms lose their electrons as they move outwards from the center of the nebula, thus forming ionised gas.
The reason why Medusa seemed like an appropriate name is the serpent-like filaments formed by the rapidly moving gas, whereas Medusa herself in the Greek mythology had snakes instead of hair. But it does have a second name as well, after the American astronomer George O. Abell. He found the nebula back in 1955, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that scientists could identify Abell 21 as a planetary nebula.
Now, don’t you think it’s about time that we see a smartphone app on the market, that is able to connect with very large telescopes such as this one, enabling all of us to take such astoundingly smashing photos of our future?