The Manatee Nebula
20,000 years ago in the constellation of Aquila, a giant star went supernova. It exploded gas out in an expanding bubble and then collapsed into a black hole, and began to feed on gas from another nearby star. This cannibalised blue-green gas swirls in a nebulous cloud around the black hole—which, interestingly, is also a microquasar. Quasars occur when a supermassive black hole—a huge black hole at the centre of a galaxy—pulls in a huge, seething whirlpool of matter, then spits back out jets of energy in the form of superheated gas or hot wind. A microquasar is just a small quasar, powered by a smaller, stellar-mass black hole. This particular microquasar and nebula system was once known as W50, but earlier this year it was renamed the Manatee Nebula because its shape bears an uncanny resemblance to the gentle, herbivorous giants. The name was suggested by Heidi Winter, Executive Assistant to the Director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and picked up by Tania Burchell, Public Information Officer, who saw it as to bridge two different scientific worlds, biology and astronomy, helping explain an astrophysical phenomenon 18,000 light years away as well as raising awareness about manatees a bit closer to home. Manatees are classified as endangered because they are often injured or killed by boat propellers. These cut deep, curved scars in the huge mammals’ skin, which are uncannily similar to the twists and scars of the Manatee Nebula caused by high-energy microquasar jets forcing their way through the gas.
Read Tania Burchell’s thoughts on the nebula
(Image Credit: NRAO)