Radio telescope images reveal nebula’s heart of carbon

ALMA takes detailed look at elements surrounding dying star

STELLAR VIEW  Sharp images of the planetary nebula NGC 6302 reveal that carbon atoms (yellow) congregate near the center of the dying star.

ALMA, Hubble Space Telescope

New high-resolution images of a planetary nebula show carbon atoms concentrated in a small region near its center. The images are the most detailed radio telescope observations to date of atoms swirling about a dying star.

Made of a star once five times the mass of the sun, planetary nebula NGC 6302 sits about 3,800 light-years from Earth in the constellation Scorpius. Scientists are interested in getting a close-up of its carbon, hydrogen and oxygen to understand the chemical environment in and around dying stars.

Combining submillimeter-wavelength observations with images taken using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers were able to identify the location of the carbon atoms. Astronomers zoomed in on the planetary nebula using five 7-meter radio antennas at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA, in northern Chile.

Future observations with additional ALMA’s antennas could provide a view that’s 400 times the resolution of these images. And, since reactions between carbon and other atoms, such as oxygen and hydrogen, create complex molecules necessary for planets and life, astronomers say the view could explain more about the evolution of the universe.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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