The coldest place in the Universe

Chris McKee
By: - 26th Oct 2013
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Astronomers have found a nebula which is colder than the emptiness of space.

The Boomerang Nebula is an unprecedented entity lost in the darkness of space. It sits at a cool one degree Kelvin, which is minus 458 degrees Fahrenheit, colder than the desolate space following the Big Bang.

Scientists using the Atacama Large Millimetere/submillimetre Array (Alma) telescope have investigated this captivating phenomenon to discover more about its bone chilling gas clouds, which have a frightfully phantom like form.

As initially watched with ground-based telescopes, this nebula seemed unbalanced, which is how the name originated. Later observations with the Hubble Space Telescope uncovered a necktie-like structure in its centre.

The new Alma information shows that the Hubble picture recounts just part of the story, and the twin flaps seen in that picture might really be a trap of the light as seen at visible wavelengths.

“This ultra-cold object is extremely intriguing and we’re learning much more about its true nature with ALMA,” said Raghvendra Sahai, a researcher and lead scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, and author of a study published in the Astrophysical Journal.

“What seemed like a double lobe, or ‘boomerang’ shape, from Earth-based optical telescopes, is actually a much broader structure that is expanding rapidly into space.”

The Boomerang nebula is 5000 light years away and is located in the constellation Centaurus. It is known as a planetary nebula and is a relatively young example of the aftermath of when a star dies. The centre of the cloud houses a white dwarf star, which emits UV light that causes the gas in the nebula to glow in a beautiful array of colours.

Taking the temperature of the nebula is no easy task. The scientists needed to observe how the nebula interacted with cosmic microwave background radiation, which has a uniform temperature of minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit. By taking the difference in temperature from the two subjective measurements, the approximate warmth of the Boomerang nebula could be deduced.

“When astronomers looked at this object in 2003 with Hubble, they saw a very classic ‘hourglass’ shape,” commented Sahai.

“Many planetary nebulae have this same double-lobe appearance, which is the result of streams of high-speed gas being jettisoned from the star. The jets then excavate holes in a surrounding cloud of gas that was ejected by the star even earlier in its lifetime as a red giant.”

The new research also indicated that the outer fringes of the nebula are beginning to warm, even though they are still slightly colder than the cosmic microwave background, which indicates the nebula has not finished contributing to the history of the universe just yet.

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