Stunning Hubble Portrait of Stellar Light Echo

This festive NASA Hubble Space Telescope image resembles a holiday wreath made of sparkling lights. The bright southern hemisphere star RS Puppis, at the center of the image, is swaddled in a gossamer cocoon of reflective dust illuminated by the glittering star. The super star is ten times more massive than our Sun and 200 times larger. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-Hubble/Europe Collaboration

The Hubble Space Telescope sends along the spirit of the season, spying a cosmic holiday wreath.

Just like your favorite seasonal ornament, the giant cloud of gas and dust lights up from within. Only in this case, the holiday glow comes from a massive variable star.

Located some 6,500 light years away from Earth, the super-giant star at the center of the image, RS Puppis, is in its death throes. The star weighs in with 10 times more mass than our sun, and is a whopping 200 times larger.

Because RS Puppis rhythmically pulses in brightness and energy—up to 15,000 times greater than our sun at its six week peak—it bathes the surrounding cocoon of reflective dust in waves of light rippling clear across the entire nebula. The phenomenon is known as a “light echo”.

“Even though light travels through space fast enough to span the gap between Earth and the Moon in a little over a second, the nebula is so large that reflected light can actually be photographed traversing the nebula,” said a statement on NASA’s website.

Keeping careful tabs on how the star’s light varies over time and how it drives light pulses across the entire dusty nebula, astronomers precisely measured the distance to RS Puppis—down to only an incredible 1% margin of error. The star will serve as an improved cosmic “yardstick”, according to the space agency, allowing observers to better gauge the distance to other celestial objects.


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Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.