Science

Published on January 20th, 2013 | by James Ayre

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Manatee Nebula Imaged In Beautiful New Photo, By The VLA Radio Telescope

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January 20th, 2013 by

The Manatee Nebula is the subject of a beautiful new image taken by the Very Large Array radio telescope network in New Mexico. The name for the nebula is actually brand new, the image is being released to coincide with a naming ceremony taking place at the Florida Manatee Festival.

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Those involved are hoping that naming the watery-looking, and manatee shaped, nebula after the highly endangered species will help to bring some attention to the problems that the species is facing.

Th Manatee Nebula was formed about 20,000 years ago from the supernova explosion of a giant star in that area. The leftovers are the nebula. Before the star ‘died’, it “puffed out its outer gaseous layers, which now swirl in green-and-blue clouds around the dead hulk of the star, which has collapsed into a black hole.”

If spectacular looking objects in space interest you, make sure that you check out some of the impressive meteor showers expected this year, and also what will likely be two of the brightest comets seen in decades, that will be visible later this year.


The official name for the nebula is W50, but now it is being dubbed “The Manatee Nebula” by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), during a ceremony today (January 19th) at the Florida Manatee Festival in Crystal River, Fla.”

“When the VLA’s giant W50 image reached the NRAO director’s office, Heidi Winter, the director’s executive assistant, saw the likeness to a manatee, the endangered marine mammals known as ‘sea cows’ that congregate in warm waters in the southeastern United States,” NRAO officials said.

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Manatees are a highly endangered aquatic mammal that lives throughout many regions of the Greater Gulf of Mexico. They are really huge animals (having met wild ones in the ocean I can attest to this), they average around 10 feet long (can get much larger) and generally weigh well over 1,000 pounds. They are herbivores, and spend much of their time leisurely grazing on sea plants. They come across somewhat like an elephant, except under water, and more passive.

As the new image of the nebula seems to depict, they are often seen floating on their back, with their flippers crossed over belly.

“Manatees are endangered, in part because boat propellers often cut deep gashes into the herbivores’ sides, injuring or killing many manatees every year. The nebula, too, bears streaky scars carved out by particles in the two protruding jets emitting from the black hole at its core.”

“Crystal River Refuge, established in 1983 to protect the endangered West Indian manatee, is the home of the largest natural concentration of manatees in Florida.”

“The Manatee Nebula, which lies 18,000 light-years away in the constellation of Aquila, isn’t the only celestial object named after an Earthly creature: It is joined in the cosmos by the Crab Nebula, the Eagle Nebula, and the Pelican Nebula, among others.”

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The Aquila constellation is the home of many other interesting nebulas, such as the Glowing Eye Nebula, NGC 6781, and NGC 6804.

For those that don’t know, “a planetary nebula, more correctly known as a stellar remnant nebula, is an emission nebula consisting of an expanding glowing shell of ionized gas ejected during the asymptotic giant branch phase of certain types of stars late in their life. The term for this class of objects is a partial misnomer that originated (1784 or 1785) with astronomer William Herschel, because when viewed through his telescope, these objects appeared to be clouds (nebulae) that were similar in appearance to Uranus, the planet that had been discovered telescopically by Herschel. Herschel’s name for these objects was adopted by astronomers and has not been changed, even though planetary nebulae are now known to be completely unrelated to the planets of the solar system.”

Planetary nebulae generally feature stars within them, but planets are unverifiable as of now. “They are a relatively short-lived phenomenon, lasting a few tens of thousands of years, compared to a typical stellar lifetime of several billion years.”

“The mechanism for formation of most planetary nebulae is thought to be the following: at the end of the star’s life, during the red giant phase, the outer layers of the star are expelled via pulsations and strong stellar winds. Without these opaque layers, the hot, luminous core emits ultraviolet radiation that ionizes the ejected outer layers of the star. This energized shell radiates as a planetary nebula.”

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“Planetary nebulae play a crucial role in the chemical evolution of the galaxy, returning material to the interstellar medium that has been enriched in heavy elements and other products of nucleosynthesis (such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and calcium). In more distant galaxies, planetary nebulae may be the only objects that can be resolved to yield useful information about chemical abundances.”

Source: Space and Wikipedia

Image Credits: NRAO/AUI/NSF, K. Golap, M. Goss; NASA’s Wide Field Survey Explorer (WISE); Manatee, Nebula, Triangulum via Wikimedia Commons

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.



  • Zwei Stein

    I’ve driven by the Very Large Array many times. I’ve always wondered what it was looking at and what an image would look like taken by it. Glad to see it at last.

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