Hubble images of dying stars could shed light on living Earth
Mosaic of four nebula observed by Hubble within the Large Magellanic Cloud
BALTIMORE, Maryland (CNN) -- Training its eye on decaying
stars in a nearby galaxy, the Hubble Space Telescope could
uncover clues about the formation of our solar system and
life on Earth.
Newly released Hubble images of glowing gas around 27 stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), released Thursday, represent the most
detailed study of planetary nebula outside of the Milky Way.
The stellar relics are many times farther away than similar
planetary nebula in this galaxy. But because all of those in
the LMC are the same distance from Earth, about 168,000
light-years, scientists can determine their brightness with
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"They are known distances, which means that if I can observe
an apparent brightness, I know the absolute brightness," said
Dr. Letizia Stanghellini, a Hubble astronomer.
Scientists consider study of the LMC important because it
could help explain the genesis of our galaxy.
"The Large Magellanic Cloud is a galaxy that is different
than the Milky Way," Stanghellini said. "It mimics an
environment that is closer to the early universe and is of
great cosmological interest."
Carbon sign of cosmic age
Only lighter elements like hydrogen filled the early
universe. As stars died they produced heavier elements. And
stars that create planetary nebulae unleash great quantities
of carbon, the elemental building block of known life.
The presence of carbon on Earth and in the solar system means
that our sun is a younger star, formed 4.6 billion years ago
in part from heavy elements like carbon cast off from an
older generation of stars.
Understanding how the molecular building blocks of life
formed could help solve the mystery of how life evolved in
our solar system, according to Hubble astronomers.
Resembling early conditions of the universe, the LMC promises
to offer scientists an intriguing laboratory for years to
come. Just why does the nearby galaxy appear so youthful?
"This is a question that everyone's trying to solve,"
A galactic zoo
The Hubble images, taken between June and September 1999,
show a rich variety of planetary nebula. SMP 16, 30 and 93
are bipolar nebula, dual lobes of gas emitted from a decaying
star. The pinwheel-shaped SMP 10 is classified as a
"point-symmetric" nebula. SMP 4 has an elliptical shape. And SMP 27,
a quadrupolar nebula, consists of four lobes of gas.
Lines point to the locations of the nebulas in a picture of the LMC taken by an observatory on Earth. Blue indicates
hotter temperatures; red, cooler ones.
Heavier elements like neon, created only when giant stars
explode into supernovas, are abundant in bipolar nebulae,
indicating their relative youth.
The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland,
manages the Hubble observatory, a joint project of NASA and
the European Space Agency.
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