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The Sciences

A Cosmic Whopper

By Fenella SaundersNovember 1, 2002 6:00 AM

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Astronomical objects rarely live up to their colorful names, but Gomez's Hamburger is an exception: "It looks kind of like the Burger King logo," says Howard Bond of Maryland's Space Telescope Science Institute, which created a new image of the odd formation (below) using the Hubble Space Telescope. Gomez's Hamburger is probably a dying, sunlike star that is shedding its outer layers—a fleeting, rarely seen stage of stellar evolution. The expanding gas cools and condenses into dust as it shoots away. Most of that dust is concentrated in a thick, opaque disk around the star's equator, seen edge-on as the hamburger's patty. Light from the dying star leaks out above and below the disk, illuminating thinner clouds there to create the bun.

The hamburger stage will last only a thousand years or so before the increasingly exposed star grows so hot that it makes the surrounding material glow, giving rise to a planetary nebula. This ephemeral snapshot is helping astronomers understand why many planetary nebulas have similarly lopsided forms. "At an early stage, it's already very nonspherical, so it must trace back to some property of the star itself," Bond says. Most likely, the pull from a companion star guided the dust into a disk. Our solitary sun will probably expire by blowing a rounder bubble—more like an enormous onion ring.

rd_whopper.jpg

Photograph courtesy of STSCI/NASA.

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