A star system is ejecting giant fireballs in space! The spectacular scene has been captured by none other than the Hubble Space Telescope of NASA. The paper documenting the findings is published in The Astrophysical Journal.
The huge fireballs – “cannon fire” in the words of scientists – are coming from the vicinity of host star named V Hydrae. They are, in fact, superhot gas being released in masses two times the size of planet Mars; their temperature is estimated to be over 9,400 degrees Celsius. More important question: do these plasma balls pose a threat to us? Not according to researchers; they are, however, being characterised by a great speed (they are said to be travelling at half-million miles per hour) such that they would take only about half an hour to go from the Earth to our Moon.
This cannon fire is nothing new to the universe. Astronomers say that they might have been around over the past 4 centuries, more specifically once every 8.5 years. But, the new discovery marks the first time such fireballs have been seen in action by scientists, says the lead author of the paper, Raghvendra Sahai from NASA’s California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
What is the exact source of the fireballs? While they are being associated to V Hydrae, scientists deem it unlikely for the latter to be their origin as it is a dying star, having probably lost around 50% of its mass already. Rather, the balls of fire might be the work of a companion star that has remained inconspicuous so far; it would be orbiting in an ellipse that would cause it to approach V Hydrae every 8.5 years (creating a binary star system), and this proximity would lead to a transfer of materials that would then settle around the companion, thereby constituting a “launching pad” for the fireballs.
This study can help explain other observations made thanks to Hubble, one of them being about planetary nebulae which are masses of glowing gas coming from dying stars. According to Sahai, the fireballs might be contributing to the making of structures observed in planetary nebulae.
“We want to identify the process that causes these amazing transformations from a puffed-up red giant to a beautiful, glowing planetary nebula,” says Sahai. “These dramatic changes occur over roughly 200 to 1,000 years, which is the blink of an eye in cosmic time.”
Sahai’s team now intends to conduct more observations of the binary star system using Hubble. They will also be attempting to detect other plasma balls released over the past centuries using the Chile-based Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA); Hubble will be of no use for this endeavour as the fireballs will have cooled by now, and will, thus, remain undetectable by Hubble.