Image via NASA

 

Astronomers found a bright blue manatee hovering in the cosmos. Covering a distance of some 700 light-years, this celestial beast makes Earth’s manatees look like…well, quite frankly, there is no apt comparison. The manatees found on Earth typically measure just over 13 feet (3.9m) in length; this celestial mammoth stretches more than 4.1 quadrillion miles.

 

Of course, a creature this size would quickly deplete Earth’s oceans of all life. Fortunately, the National Wildlife Federation doesn’t have to worry because this manatee isn’t a carnivore or even a herbivore. It’s a nebula.

 

Twenty thousand years ago, this “manatee” was a massive star. In fact, it was a bit too massive–it exploded in a supernova blast, which subsequently collapsed into a black hole. When the star went supernova, it expelled its outer gases into the cosmos, creating the blue-green bubble that we see today. But this didn’t happen overnight; astronomers believe that the blast took more than 10,000 years to assume its manatee-like shape.

 

Currently, this nebula is known as “W50.” However, because this remnant has such a strong resemblance to the endangered marine mammal, scientists have decided to rename the remains of this supernovae blast “the Manatee Nebula.” Notably, this is one of the biggest supernova remnants ever spotted by the Very Large Array (VLA).

 

What gives the nebula such a unique shape?

 

The black hole at the center of the blast is feeding on gas from a companion star. Before it is consumed, the gas collects in a disk around the black hole (called an accretion disk). Ultimately, this disk and the black hole form powerful magnetic field lines that channel some of the particles outward in powerful jets, which travel at nearly the speed of light. Over time, these jets forced their way through the expanding gases and sculpted this marvelous image.

 

A sobering thought?

 

Manatees are an endangered species in many areas. It is entirely possible that, one day in the not very far off future, this nebula will be named after an extinct species.


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