Dying star’s story embedded in tail

first_imgPASADENA – Astronomers using a space telescope that observes ultraviolet light have detected a cometlike tail 13 light-years long on a star first discovered more than four centuries ago. During a teleconference Wednesday, scientists from NASA and Caltech described how the Galaxy Evolution Explorer telescope allowed them to view the stunning debris trail left by the star known as Mira. “It’s truly remarkable that this star, which we’ve studied for centuries, has surprised us with this new and remarkable phenomenon,” Chris Martin, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology. Mira, from the Latin for “wonderful,” has been studied by astronomers since its discovery in 1596. Traveling roughly 350 light-years from Earth, it appears to fade and reappear in a 332-day cycle. Though in its younger days it was much like the sun at the center of the Earth’s system, it has since become a swollen, cool star known as a red giant, shedding dust and gas as it zips through space at 80 miles per second. “We’re seeing, in a sense, the kind of processes the sun will go through in, oh, say 4 or 5 billion years,” said Mike Shara, curator of the American Museum of Natural History’s department of astrophysics in New York City. Mira’s trail of debris provides a remarkable opportunity to study the process of a star’s decay, the astronomers said. “We want to be able to read that tail like a ticker tape,” said Mark Seibert of the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s observatories in Pasadena. “We want to be able to understand exactly what (Mira’s) been doing for the last 30,000 years.” Seibert was one of the first astronomers to spot Mira’s stunning tail as he flipped through images returned from the Galax telescope’s survey of space. “It was a complete and utter surprise because it was Mira – Mira is the world’s most famous variable star. It’s been studied for 400 years, everything we were able to know about it has been studied already,” he said. But there in the corner of one image was a strange blue streak trailing the star. In front was a bowshock of glowing gas like the wave a boat makes as it pushes through the water. “We were scratching our head for the longest time,” Seibert said of quest to explain the find. The researchers now believe the tail’s glow is created when the relatively cool hydrogen sheds by the star is bombarded with electrons from heated interstellar gas. [email protected] (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more