Image: Owl Nebula
Émilie Storer (Collège Charlemagne, QUE), André-Nicolas Chené (HIA/NRC of Canada), and Travis Rector (U.Alaska, Anchorage)
Gemini North image of the planetary nebula M97, also known as the Owl Nebula, imaged by the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS) as part of a Canadian contest for high school students. The approximately 6,000-year-old nebula is located about 2,600 light-years away, and has a diameter of about three light-years across. It is located in the constellation of Ursa Major (which contains the Big Dipper).
updated 3/30/2010 7:08:08 PM ET 2010-03-30T23:08:08

A new image of the Owl Nebula taken by the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii is the result of a student essay contest in Canada, where students picked their favorite object in the sky in hopes the observatory would snap a photo of it.

The space photo contest invited high school students from across Canada to choose their favorite object in the sky and explain in an essay why they would like the Gemini science team to observe it. Four professional astronomers and science educators reviewed the almost 50 entries sent in to select a winner.

The prize went to high school student Émilie Storer from Collège Charlemagne, in Pierrefonds, Quebec, who selected the ultimate target of the new image and said, "I definitely want to be an astronomer now!"

At a celebration at her school, Canadian Gemini Office Astronomer Andre-Nicolas Chene and former Gemini Science Fellow Étienne Artigau (now at the Universite de Montreal) explained to the more than 250 students in attendance how the planetary nebula formed and what is known about it from previous studies.

A live video-link to the Gemini North control room, located atop Mauna Kea, Hawaii, allowed students to see where the observations of the Owl Nebula were made and talk to staff at the observatory.

The scientists also talked about what the new observations prompted by Émilie's win might reveal about the nebula.

"This extended and impressive nebula from the northern sky has surprisingly not been imaged much by large telescopes. Émilie's data are now the best available set of data on this object," Chene, who produced the final image, said.

Dr. Sun Kwok, Dean of University of Hong-Kong and a world expert on planetary nebulas, inspected the new Gemini data, which he used to refine his model of the nebula.

"Rather than a simple ball of gas as the Owl Nebula has previously been thought to be, the Gemini images reveal that this is a bipolar nebula with a cylinder-like outer structure, and the pair of 'eyes' are cavities cleared out by a fast gaseous outflow. Most interestingly, the orientation of the outflow is offset from the axis of the cylinder by 36 degrees," Kwok said.

It is expected that Émilie will be invited to be a co-author on a future article in a professional astronomy and astrophysics journal presenting these results (more nebula photos).

The contest, which is sponsored by the team of scientists who coordinate Gemini observations for Canada (the Canadian Gemini Office), at the National Research Council of Canada's Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (HIA), was created to encourage students to participate in science activities.

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