Spooky 'Hand of God' in Space Reaches for Clouds

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It’s hard not to see a giant glowing hand in the image above — thanks to a phenomenon known as pareidolia — but the ghostly palm and fingers reaching out into the cosmos are actually the blown-apart remains of a dead star, zapped by powerful energy beams shooting out from its spinning corpse

Which is pretty creepy too, when you put it that way.

The image is a composite made from observations by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), showing the appropriately-named “Hand of God” nebula located 17,000 light-years away. Chandra data is in red and green and the more recent NuSTAR observations are in blue, revealing a high-energy X-ray source near the “wrist” of the hand.

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Somewhere within that bright area is the pulsar PSR B1509-58, a super-dense, rapidly spinning neutron star barely 12 miles wide — but blasting huge amounts of high-energy radiation into the 150-light-year-wide cloud of material it blew off nearly 2,000 years ago.

As the pulsar’s emissions interact with the surrounding, expanding material, it glows in X-rays that our orbiting observatories can see.

“NuSTAR’s unique viewpoint, in seeing the highest-energy X-rays, is showing us well-studied objects and regions in a whole new light,” said Fiona Harrison, NuSTAR’s principal investigator at Caltech.

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These new observations by NuSTAR will help astronomers better determine the “actual” shape of the nebula, which can seem more like a fist than a hand, depending on what wavelengths of X-rays are detected. (See a previous Chandra image of this object here.)

“We don’t know if the hand shape is an optical illusion,” said Hongjun An of McGill University in Montreal. “With NuSTAR, the hand looks more like a fist, which is giving us some clues.”

The bubbling orange cloud the hand seems to be reaching for is the nearby gas cloud RCW 89, which is also being energized by beams from the pulsar, as well as the faster wind within the “fingers.”

NuSTAR launched into space on June 13, 2012, on a mission to explore the high-energy X-ray universe. It is observing black holes, dead and exploded stars and other extreme objects in our own Milky Way galaxy and beyond.

Image: NuSTAR and Chandra x-ray image of a nebula nicknamed the “Hand of God” (NASA/JPL-Caltech/McGill)

Source: NASA/JPL press release and Chandra photo album.