Cat’s Eye Nebula in 3D: Astronomers Decode Mystery Behind the Nebula’s Enigmatic Structure Using Novel Models

A side-by-side comparison of the 3D model of the Cat’s Eye Nebula (left) and the Cat’s Eye Nebula as photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope (right)

(Ryan Clairmont [left]NASA, ESA, HEIC, The Hubble Heritage Team / STScI / AURA [right])

Nebulae are some of the most stunning showstoppers even among cosmic beauty pageants boasting exotic lineups of celestial supernovae and interstellar aurorae. And while these cosmic structures occur in an extreme variety of shapes and sizes, the Cat’s Eye Nebula has remained among the most fascinating and enigmatic ones in our universe. The mystery of its formation has been a rather hot coffee topic for scientists for a while now – but we might have just cracked one piece of its puzzle!

The NGC 6543, nicknamed The Cat’s Eye Nebula, was photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope, revealing its intricate and fascinating array of shimmering knots, spherical shells, and arc-like filaments. The planetary nebula received its well-known moniker from approximately 11 concentric bubbles of interacting stardust that make up its outer structure, while its recent iris-like development perplexed astronomers who tried to comprehend the abrupt appearance.

There is clearly much to learn about the wonderful physics behind these unfathomably complex structures, and much like a real cat, the NGC 6543 certainly did not make it easy. It rejected most accepted theories of planetary nebula formation, and any potential explanations lacked detailed models to test the theories out.

Extracting the cat out of the cosmic bag

In times like this, you just gotta take matters into your own paws, which is exactly what Ryan Clairmont did. “When I first saw the Cat’s Eye Nebula, I was astounded by its beautiful, perfectly symmetric structure. I was even more surprised that its 3D structure was not fully understood, “he explains.

The astronomy enthusiast formed a team and extracted movement data of the materials within the belly of our cat using Mexico’s San Pedro Martir National Observatory. This was combined with data and images from Hubble’s all-seeing eye to create a completely novel 3D model of the cosmic structure.

This helped provide some very interesting insight. They found that the high-density gas rings were almost perfectly symmetrical, which suggested that the system’s central star might have spewed jets of similarly dense matter in opposite directions that guided the intricate make-up of the nebula.

To visualise this, imagine a point on the top of a stationary spinning top that was oozing light as it spun. If you put photosynthetic paper directly above the top, the light would eventually start tracing circles of different diameters on it as it wobbled to a stop. This is exactly how the team imagines the nebula acquired its characteristic rings around the Cat’s Eye.

However, since the rings don’t circumscribe full circles, it suggests that the jets probably ran out before the spinning star could complete a full rotation. What’s even more fascinating is that the models indicated that such circumstances are only possible in binary star systems, meaning there might actually be two stellar objects sharing the starlight in the middle of the rare structure, contrary to past belief.

“Precessing jets in planetary nebulae are relatively rare, so it’s important to understand how they contribute to the shaping of more complex systems like the Cat’s Eye. Ultimately, understanding how they form provides insight into the eventual fate of our Sun, which will itself one day become a planetary nebula, “Ryan explains.

As Ryan said, the 1,000-year-old NGC 6543 that we observe today is actually comparable to our Sun in that, after dying, our star may undergo a similar transformation into a planetary nebula as the Cat’s Eye. However, contrary to what you might think, the phrase “planetary nebula” is simply a misnomer because there is absolutely no connection between these cosmic objects and any planets.

This research was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Societyand can be accessed here.

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