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Gemini Image Captures Elegant Beauty of Planetary Nebula Discovered by Amateur Astronomer
07.25.2011

For full Gemini Press Release, visit http://www.gemini.edu/node/11656

http://www.gemini.edu/node/11656
Planetary nebula Kronberger 61
Excerpt: In a partnership between amateur and professional astronomers, the recent discovery of a dying star’s last gasps could help resolve a decades-old debate among astronomers. That is, are stellar companions key to the formation and structure of planetary nebulae? The discovery, by Austrian amateur astronomer Matthias Kronberger, is featured at an International Astronomical Union symposium on planetary nebulae this week in Spain’s Canary Islands...

Not coincidently, the location of the new nebula (named Kronberger 61, or Kn 61, after its discoverer) is within a relatively small patch of sky being intensely monitored by NASA’s Kepler planet finding mission. ...“Kn 61 is among a rather small collection of planetary nebulae that are strategically placed within Kepler’s gaze,” said Orsola De Marco of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia who is the author of a 2009 paper speculating on how companion stars or even planets may influence and shape the intricate structure seen in many planetary nebulae. “Explaining the puffs left behind when medium sized stars like our Sun expel their last-breaths is a source of heated debate among astronomers, especially the part that companions might play,” says De Marco, “it literally keeps us up at night!”

NASA's Kepler ... spacecraft continuously stares at more than 150,000 stars in the same patch of sky observing the changes in brightness. The presence of a companion can cause these brightness fluctuations through eclipses or tidal disruptions. However, most commonly in such binaries, the total amount of light received changes due to reflections from, and heating of, the companion by the star – analogous to the Moon’s phases. “It is a gamble that possible companions, or even planets, can be found due to these usually small light variations,” says George Jacoby of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization and the Carnegie Observatories (Pasadena). “However, with enough objects it becomes statistically very likely that we will uncover several where the geometries are favorable – we are playing an odds game and it isn’t yet known if Kn 61 will prove to have a companion.” Jacoby also serves as the Principal Investigator for a program to obtain follow-up observations of Kn 61’s central star with Kepler.

To increase their odds, professional and amateur astronomers are working as partners to comb through the entire Kepler field looking for planetary nebula candidates. To date six have been found including this one by Kronberger, a member of the amateur group called the “Deep Sky Hunters.” The group, dedicated to finding new objects in our galaxy and beyond, has found two planetary nebulae in the Kepler field so far (including Kn 61) and a possible third, which, according to Jacoby, “…are extremely rare and each, a valuable gem.”

...“Planetary nebulae present a profound mystery,” says De Marco. “Some recent theories suggest that planetary nebulae form only in close binary or even planetary systems — on the other hand, the conventional textbook explanation is that most stars, even solo stars like our sun, will meet this fate. That might just be too simple.”

However, Jacoby points out that observations from the ground have yet to find a high percentage of binaries associated with planetary nebulae. “This is quite likely due to our inability to detect these binaries from the ground and if so then Kepler is likely to push the debate strongly in one direction or the other.”....

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