Credits: NASA, the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI) and ESA
"Starry Night", Vincent van Gogh’s famous painting, is renowned for its bold whorls of light sweeping across a raging night sky. Although this image of the heavens came only from the artist’s restless imagination, a new picture from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope bears remarkable similarities to the Van Gogh work, complete with never-before-seen spirals of dust swirling across trillions of kilometres of interstellar space.
This image, obtained with the Advanced Camera for Surveys on 8 February 2004, is Hubble’s latest view of an expanding halo of light around a distant star, named V838 Monocerotis (V838 Mon). The illumination of interstellar dust comes from the red supergiant star at the middle of the image, which gave off a flashbulb-like pulse of light two years ago. V838 Mon is located about 20 000 light-years away from Earth in the direction of the constellation Monoceros, placing the star at the outer edge of our Milky Way galaxy.
Called a ’light echo’, the expanding illumination of a dusty cloud around the star has been revealing remarkable structures ever since the star suddenly brightened for several weeks in early 2002. Though Hubble has followed the light echo in several snapshots, this new image shows swirls or eddies in the dusty cloud for the first time. These eddies are probably caused by turbulence in the dust and gas around the star as they slowly expand away. The dust and gas were likely ejected from the star in a previous explosion, similar to the 2002 event, which occurred some tens of thousands of years ago. The surrounding dust remained invisible and unsuspected until suddenly illuminated by the brilliant explosion of the central star two years ago.
Lars Lindberg Christensen | ESA
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