Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have stumbled upon a mysterious object that is grudgingly yielding clues to its identity. A quick glance at the Hubble picture at top shows that this celestial body, called He 2-90, looks like a young, dust-enshrouded star with narrow jets of material streaming from each side. But it's not. The object is classified as a planetary nebula, the glowing remains of a dying, lightweight star. But the Hubble observations suggest that it may not fit that classification, either.
The Hubble astronomers now suspect that this enigmatic object may actually be a pair of aging stars masquerading as a single youngster. One member of the duo is a bloated red giant star shedding matter from its outer layers. This matter is then gravitationally captured in a rotating, pancake-shaped accretion disk around a compact partner, which is most likely a young white dwarf (the collapsed remnant of a sun-like star). The stars cannot be seen in the Hubble images because a lane of dust obscures them.
The Hubble picture at top shows a centrally bright object with jets, appearing like strings of beads, emanating from both sides of center. (The other streaks of light running diagonally from He 2-90 are artificial effects of the telescope's optical system.) Each jet possesses at least six bright clumps of gas, which are speeding along at rates estimated to be at least 375,000 miles an hour (600,000 kilometers an hour). These gaseous salvos are being ejected into space about every 100 years, and may be caused by periodic instabilities in He 2-90's accretion disk. The jets from very young stars behave in a similar way. Deep images taken from terrestrial observatories show each jet extending at least 100,000 astronomical units (one astronomical unit equals the Earth-Sun distance, 93 million miles).
The jets' relatively modest speed implies that one member of the duo is a white dwarf. Observations by the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory, however, discovered a gamma-ray source in the vicinity of He 2-90, suggesting that the companion may be a neutron star or a black hole (the compact corpses of dying, massive stars). But the jets from accretion disks around neutron stars or black holes travel at a few tenths the speed of light, much faster than the plodding pace of He 2-90's jets. The Hubble astronomers are planning more observations to pinpoint the gamma-ray source to determine whether it is associated with He 2-90.
An accretion disk needs gravity to form. For gravity to create He 2-90's disk, the pair of stars must reside at a cozy distance from each other: within about 10 astronomical units. Although the astronomers are uncertain about the details, they believe that magnetic fields associated with the accretion disk produce and constrict the pencil-thin jets seen in the Hubble image.
The close-up Hubble photo at bottom shows a dark, flaring, disk-like structure [off-center] bisecting the bright light from the object. The disk is seen edge-on. Although too large to be an accretion disk, this dark, flaring disk may provide indirect proof of the other's existence. Most theories for producing jets require the presence of an accretion disk.
The jets are seen streaming from both sides of the central object. The round, white objects at the lower left and upper right corners are two bright clumps of gas in the jets. The astronomers traced the jets to within 1,000 astronomical units of the central obscured star. The star ejected this jet material about 30 years ago.
Scientists discovered this puzzling object while taking a census of planetary nebulae. They knew it had been classified as a dying, sun-like star. He 2-90 is enshrouded in very hot (17,500 degrees Fahrenheit or 10,000 degrees Kelvin), glowing gas, a typical feature of planetary nebulae. And yet the disk and jets indicated the presence of an embryonic star. The mystified astronomers needed more information. Since embryonic stars are usually associated with cool, dense clouds of gas and dust, they used a ground-based radio telescope in Chile to look for evidence of such a cloud around He 2-90. No such cloud was found, and He 2-90's neighborhood showed no traces of developing stars. He 2-90 lies about 8,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Centaurus in the southern sky.
The images were taken Sept 28, 1999 with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. The images and results appear in the Aug. 1 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.