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
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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.
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