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Star merger created rare Blue Ring Nebula

November 18, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

Astronomers have solved the mystery of the Blue Ring Nebula, first discovered 16 years ago as a star surrounded by an ultraviolet ring. Their initial observation captured a rare moment after two stars merged, ringed in a glowing cone of material around the resulting star.

(CNN)Astronomers were surprised when they discovered what appeared to be a star surrounded by an ultraviolet ring 16 years ago.

Now, after years of detective work, researchers, including those from the original NASA Galaxy Evolution Explorer mission that discovered it, have solved the mystery of the object.

Observations from ground and space-based telescopes helped the researchers determine that the ring was created when two stars merged thousands of years ago.

A sun-like star crashed into and consumed a smaller star orbiting it, creating a cone-shaped cloud of fluorescent debris.

And this disk acted like a pizza cutter after the stars merged, slicing right through the cloud of debris created by the merger.

The discovery of the blue ring presented the GALEX team with a true mystery, recalled study coauthor Mark Seibert, one of the first to identify the object in the GALEX data in 2004.

It's the first time astronomers have glimpsed this rare phase that occurs just a few thousand years after stars merge.

"The merging of two stars is fairly common, but they quickly become obscured by lots of dust as the ejecta from them expands and cools in space, which means we can't see what has actually happened," said lead study author Keri Hoadley in a statement.

Astronomers used NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, other infrared observatories, as well as ground-based telescopes like Caltech's Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii to study aspects of the ring over the past 16 years.

This also enabled the scientists to rule out the potential presence of a planet around the star and identify that the star was encircled by glowing dust -- and ultimately, realizing they had witnessed something never seen before in stellar merger evolution.

"It's like catching sight of a baby when it first walks," said Don Neill, GALEX team member and research scientist at Caltech, in a statement.

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