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    The Manatee Nebula Is a Space Cow Born of a Dead Star

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF, K. Golap, M. Goss; NASA’s Wide Field Survey Explorer (WISE).

    Astronomers at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory have discovered a supernova remnant that's nearly 700 light years across, and which is one of the largest ever found by the observatory's Very Large Array. Better yet, the positively enormous cloud of gas and matter is shaped–you guessed it–like a cosmic manatee.

    (If you'd like to check out the NRAO facilities, take a photo tour here.)

    The nebula in question is officially named W50, as it was the 50th object listed in Dutch astronomer Gart Westerhout's 1958 catalog of interstellar radio sources. According to the NRAO, the nebula spans two degrees of view across the sky (from Earth, W50 appears about as wide as four Moons) and was recently imaged in detail by the VLA.

    As the NRAO tells it, when a printout of the image showed up in site director Karen O'Neil's office, her assistant noted that W50 looked like a manatee. It does, doesn't it? The Manatee Nebula moniker stuck.

    As explained in the video above, the Manatee Nebula was formed when a huge star in the constellation of Aquila, which sits around 18,000 lights years from Earth, went into full-on supernova mode. The resulting object, which the NRAO said is most likely a black hole, sucks in gases from a nearby companion star, which formed a disk around the black hole. 

    That system helped W50 grow to its enormous size, as the NRAO explained:

    The disk and black hole’s network of powerful magnetic field lines acts like an enormous railroad system to snag charged particles out of the disk and channel them outward in powerful jets traveling at nearly the speed of light. This system of a black hole and its feeder star shines brightly in both radio waves and X-rays and is known collectively as the SS433 microquasar.

    Over time, the micro quasar’s jets have forced their way through the expanding gases of the W50 bubble, eventually punching bulges outward on either side. The jets also wobble, like an unstable spinning top, and blaze vivid corkscrew patterns across the inflating bulges.

    Because the NRAO is great, the observatory also supplied a pair of GIFs to better explain the system. The first shows the SS433 binary system, with the black hole (on the left) sucking in gases from its nearby star. The blue and red lines represent the jets of charged particles escaping the system.

    Credit: Created using software by Robert Hynes, U.Texas

    The second GIF is shows the jets escaping from the black hole, as recorded by the VLA.

    Credit: A. Mioduszewski et al., NRAO/AUI/NSF

    Those emissions helped pump the Manatee Nebula to its enormous proportions. And, come on, it's a glowing green manatee that's 700 light years across. It's cool work, and I have to applaud the NRAO for providing such cool and helpful visuals with their work. Of course, I've been a fan of the NRAO's work ever since Motherboard paid a visit last summer to check out their enormous telescopes.