Hubble spots rare celestial object that looks like a space lightsaber

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Herbig–Haro object HH111 resembles a Star Wars weapon.


ESA/Hubble & NASA, B. Nisini

Paging Luke Skywalker. A newly released Hubble Space Telescope view of a slash of glowing gas against the star-studded darkness of space has me in a very Star Wars mood. The European Space Agency described the object as a “relatively rare celestial phenomenon” in a statement Monday. 

What we’re seeing in the image is a Herbig–Haro object (named for astronomers George Herbig and Guillermo Haro) called HH111. The setting is a star-forming region in the constellation of Orion. The jet of gas looks like it’s cosplaying as a blue lightsaber.

Herbig-Haro objects have dramatic origin stories. “Newly formed stars are often very active, and in some cases they expel very narrow jets of rapidly moving ionized gas — gas that is so hot that its molecules and atoms have lost their electrons, making the gas highly charged,” said ESA. “The streams of ionized gas then collide with the clouds of gas and dust surrounding newly formed stars at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per second.”

NASA is the agency that first clued me into how Herbig–Haro objects can look like lightsabers in space. In 2015, NASA shared a Hubble view of Herbig-Haro Jet HH24 just ahead of the opening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, calling it a “double-bladed lightsaber” with a “Jedi-like cloak of dust.”

The spectacular view of HH111 comes from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3, which sees in both optical (close to what our human eyes see) and infrared. The ability to make observations in infrared gives Hubble the clarity to peer through the gas and dust to get a good look at objects like this one.

Hubble is a joint project from NASA and ESA. It has now spent over 31 years looking out into the universe. It has weathered many technical difficulties, including a serious computer glitch earlier this year

Hubble won’t live forever, but it could still last for years, giving us more images that tempt me to whisper “may the Force be with you” at my computer screen.

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