A new photo of a star shedding its gassy layers bears a striking resemblance to a red jellyfish floating in a sea of green kelp.
The jellyfish-star photo depicts a sphere of stellar innards, blown out from a humongous star as it ages. The star (white dot in center of red ring) is one of the most massive stellar residents of our Milky Way galaxy.
The new image was taken by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), currently in orbit around Earth. (More WISE telescope photos.)
Called V385 Carinae, the star spotted by WISE is 35 times as massive as our sun, with a diameter nearly 18 times as large. It's hotter, too, and shines with more than one million times the amount of light.
Objects like this are called Wolf-Rayet stars, after the astronomers who found the first few, and make our sun look puny by comparison. These fiery candles burn out quickly, leading short lives of only a few million years (our sun is middle-aged and about 4.6 billion years old).
As they age, Wolf-Rayet stars blow out more and more of the heavier atoms cooking inside them — atoms such as oxygen that are needed for life as we know it.
The material is puffed out into clouds like the one that glows brightly in the new image. In this case, the hollow sphere showed up prominently only at the longest of four infrared wavelengths detected by WISE.
Astronomers think this infrared light comes from oxygen atoms that have been stripped of some of their electrons by ultraviolet radiation from the star. When the electrons join up again with the oxygen atoms, light is produced that WISE can detect with its 22-micron infrared light detector.
The process is similar to what happens in fluorescent light bulbs.
Infrared light in one wavelength is colored green, while light in another range is blue. The green, kelp-looking material is warm dust, and the blue dots are stars in our Milky Way galaxy.
This image mosaic is made up of about 300 overlapping frames, taken as WISE continues its survey of the entire sky.
V385 Carinae is located in the Carina constellation, about 16,000 light-years from Earth.