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"Red Rectangle" Nebula

The star HD 44179 is surrounded by an extraordinary structure known as the Red Rectangle. It acquired its moniker because of its shape and its apparent color when seen in early images from Earth. This strikingly detailed new Hubble image reveals how, when seen from space, the nebula, rather than being rectangular, is shaped like an X with additional complex structures of spaced lines of glowing gas, a little like the rungs of a ladder. The star at the center is similar to the Sun, but at the end of its lifetime, pumping out gas and other material to make the nebula, and giving it the distinctive shape. It also appears that the star is a close binary that is surrounded by a dense torus of dust both of which may help to explain the very curious shape. Precisely how the central engine of this remarkable and unique object spun the gossamer threads of nebulosity remains mysterious. It is likely that precessing jets of material played a role.

The Red Rectangle is an unusual example of what is known as a proto-planetary nebula. These are old stars, on their way to becoming planetary nebulae. Once the expulsion of mass is complete a very hot white dwarf star will remain and its brilliant ultraviolet radiation will cause the surrounding gas to glow. The Red Rectangle is found about 2 300 light-years away in the constellation Monoceros (the Unicorn).

Hubble's sharp pictures show that the Red Rectangle is not really rectangular, but has an overall X-shaped structure, which the astronomers involved in the study interpret as arising from outflows of gas and dust from the star in the center. The outflows are ejected from the star in two opposing directions, producing a shape like two ice-cream cones touching at their tips. Also remarkable are straight features that appear like rungs on a ladder, making the Red Rectangle look similar to a spider web, a shape unlike that of any other known nebula in the sky. These rungs may have arisen in episodes of mass ejection from the star occurring every few hundred years. They could represent a series of nested, expanding structures similar in shape to wine glasses, seen exactly edge-on so that their rims appear as straight lines from our vantage point.

The star in the center of the Red Rectangle is one that began its life as a star similar to our Sun. It is now nearing the end of its lifetime, and is in the process of ejecting its outer layers to produce the visible nebula. The shedding of the outer layers began about 14,000 years ago. In a few thousand years, the star will have become smaller and hotter, and will begin to release a flood of ultraviolet light into the surrounding nebula; at that time, gas in the nebula will begin to fluoresce, producing what astronomers call a planetary nebula. At the present time, however, the star is still so cool that atoms in the surrounding gas do not glow, and the surrounding dust particles can only be seen because they are reflecting the starlight from the central star. In addition, there are molecules mixed in with the dust, which emit light in the red portion of the spectrum. Astronomers are not yet certain which types of molecules are producing the red color that is so striking in the Red Rectangle, but suspect that they are hydrocarbons that form in the cool outflow from the central star.

Another remarkable feature of the Red Rectangle, visible only with the superb resolution of the Hubble telescope, is the dark band passing across the central star. This band is the shadow of a dense disk of dust that surrounds the star. In fact, the star itself cannot be seen directly, due to the thickness of the dust disk. All we can see is light that streams out perpendicularly to the disk, and then scatters off of dust particles toward our direction. Astronomers found that the star in the center is actually a close pair of stars that orbit each other with a period of about 10 1/2 months. Interactions between these stars have probably caused the ejection of the thick dust disk that obscures our view of the binary. The disk has funneled subsequent outflows in the directions perpendicular to the disk, forming the bizarre bi- conical structure we see as the Red Rectangle. The reasons for the periodic ejections of more gas and dust, which are producing the "rungs" revealed in the Hubble image, remain unknown.

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