Okay, I know what this story has some of you thinking. What are those astronomers up to again? Naming things… renaming things… isn’t it all just silly? Well yes, and no. I think the “Manatee Nebula” is silly in all the right ways.
Why do I love this story? Well first, it’s the telescope that took the image. This exquisite, gorgeous image was constructed with data from the newly revamped Jansky Very Large Array. This iconic set of 27 dishes arranged in a Y-formation in the New Mexico desert got a brand new life with major upgrades put in place over the last few years.
Oh sure, at first glance it looks like the same telescope. But if you look deeper, you’ll see all new receivers (collectors of radio light) that span a much broader range of wavelengths than the previous iteration. This opens the JVLA to a broader set of spectral features and makes it much more sensitive to faint radiation. More sensitivity means more science. Add to that a whole new fiber optic data transfer system and a brand new massive supercomputer at the back end, and you have some rather giddy astronomers.
Then, there is the nebula itself. Formerly known as W50, it is home to a strange phenomenon known as a microquasar. You may remember that a quasar is what is seen when a supermassive black hole in the center of a galaxy is feeding off of the material around it. Well a microquasar is similar, except that it is powered by a stellar-mass black hole that formed in the death of a massive star in a supernova explosion. These are some pretty powerful forces at work that create the microquasar, its jets, and the bubble of a nebula that has been blown out around it.
I also love that this story allows two different branches of science to come together and say, “Look at how awesome the universe is!” In one story, you can read about astrophysical phenomena and the giant, peaceful creatures that inhabit the Florida coasts. In fact, the newly named nebula was unveiled at the Manatee Festival at the site where many manatees come to rest in the winter.
Finally, I love this story because of the people involved. The suggestion for the name came from a remark made by Heidi Winter, the Executive Assistant to the Director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. She is also one of the sweetest people I have ever known and had an enthusiasm for astronomy that was simply infectious. The idea was picked up on by Tania Burchell, Public Information Officer for the observatory and also one of the coolest people I know.
Tania spent a year working with manatees as a Park Ranger and makes an excellent case for why this nebula and those gentle giants are really so similar. For example, sadly, manatees are often injured and scarred by boat propellers, whereas the Manatee Nebula has been twisted up and scarred by the action of the microquasar jets. When else has an astrophysical object raised awareness for a distressing problem in the natural world on Earth?
Maybe some people think it is silly, but I think it is beautiful. After all, astronomy is one subject that brings people together to marvel at the wonders of the Universe. Usually, we focus on the very large scales of things. Sometimes it’s nice to turn that focus around back to Earth and be reminded of the lovely treasures we have here, both in the natural world and in the people around us.
Image Credits: Top: NRAO/AUI/NSF, K. Golap, M. Goss; NASA’s Wide Field Survey Explorer (WISE). Middle: Image used with permission from Tracy Colson.