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Hubble captures wispy decay of nebulous giant

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Reflection nebula in the Pleiades  

(CNN) -- A dark nebula faces a dangerous future as it advances toward a bright star in the Pleiades cluster. Already ghostly tendrils ahead of the black cloud are being destroyed by the blue star, one of the famed Seven Sisters, Hubble scientists said Wednesday.

The dark and dusty surface of the gas cloud, known as a reflection nebula, reflects the light of its bright companion, the star Merope, which is just outside the image to the upper right. The picture was released this week by the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Often nebulae near clusters of stars consist of the gas and debris that produced the stars. But the Pleiades cloud has no such connection. It drifts on its own through the cluster at roughly 6.8 miles per second (11 km per second).

This particular wispy cloud resides in the Pleiades, a small grouping of bright blue stars named after the Seven Sisters of Greek mythology, located about 380 light years from Earth in the constellation Taurus. About six or seven of the brightest ones can be seen with the naked eye. Hundreds more fainter sisters are discernable with a small telescope.

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Only about 0.06 light years separate the main cloud from Merope, about 3,500 times the distance of the Earth from the sun. Hubble scientists theorize that as the nebula advances, the powerful starlight slows down smaller particles much more than larger ones.

Merope sifts the particles by size, like grain tossed into the air to separate wheat from chaff, the Hubble researchers said. The tendrils heading directly toward Merope are rivulets of bigger dust grains, marching on to their destiny as their smaller comrades stay behind, to the lower left of the image.

If the nebula escapes death during its close encounter with Merope over the next several millennia, it will sweep past the star like a comet swings past our sun, said the Hubble scientists.

Astronomers George Herbig and Theodore Simon of the University of Hawaii obtained the image in 1999 using the Hubble observatory, which has returned tens of thousands of high-resolution images of the universe since it began Earth orbit a decade ago.



RELATED STORIES:
Hubble images show delicate wisps of starstuff
October 11, 2000
Hubble reveals secrets of a celestial 'Blob'
October 9, 2000
Young stars belch fiery gas in Hubble time-lapse movies
September 21, 2000
Nebulous 'Spirograph' astounds Hubble astronomers
September 11, 2000

RELATED SITES:
Space Telescope Science Institute Home Page
  • HubbleSite - Team Hubble
NASA K-12 Internet: Live from the Hubble Space Telescope
Hubble Heritage Project


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