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Guitar Nebula

May 26, 2019

Most of the stars in the Milky Way orbit the center of the galaxy in the same direction, and at about the same speed, as all the other stars around them.

But a few follow their own paths. An example is a star at the tip of the Guitar Nebula. The nebula is a bubble of gas with an outline that resembles a guitar. It’s in Cepheus, the king, which is low in the north at nightfall. The constellation’s brightest stars form a shape that resembles a child’s drawing of a house. Don’t look for the nebula, though — it’s so faint that it wasn’t discovered until 1992.

The guitar was sculpted by a pulsar — the crushed core of a once-mighty star. It spins once every two-thirds of a second, emitting a pulse of energy with each turn.

The pulsar was born when the star exploded as a supernova. The explosion must have been off-center, so it gave the dead core a powerful kick. The pulsar is plowing through clouds of gas and dust at more than two million miles an hour. It leaves an expanding wake behind it, like a ship traveling across the ocean. That wake is what we see as the Guitar Nebula.

But there’s more to the nebula than meets the eye. X-ray telescopes in space reveal a long, high-speed “jet” of material. It’s firing away from the tip of the nebula at a right angle to the nebula itself. The jet most likely is powered by the pulsar’s magnetic field, which funnels charged particles away from the pulsar — adding an interesting note to the celestial guitar.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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