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Magnetic Fields Found To Shape Planetary Nebulae

A team of German astronomers have detected magnetic fields in the central stars of four planetary nebulae. A planetary nebula is the expanding gas shell created when an old star ejects its outer layers at the end of its lifetime. This may solve a long-standing mystery about why eighty percent of planetary nebulae are not spherical.


(From Butterfly Nebula - NGC 6302)

The presence of magnetic fields might explain the unusual shapes of planetary nebulae, like the NGC 6302 - the Butterfly Nebula. NGC 6302 is classified as a bipolar nebula. If the ejected stellar matter is trapped along magnetic field lines as it is expelled from the star, like iron filings trapped along the field lines of a bar magnet, then the non-spherical shapes would be easier to understand. Matter would more easily leave the star at magnetic poles where the magnetic field is strongest.

Astronomer Fred Hoyle took an imaginative approach to this problem in his 1957 novel Black Cloud. In the story, an astronomy grad student named Knut Jensen was going about the rather prosaic work of looking for supernovae. In the 1950's, the best way to do this was to take a picture of a patch of sky, and then take another picture a month or so later. The two pictures (or photographic plates) were placed side-by-side in a device called a "blink comparator" (called a 'blinker' in the story). By glancing first at one and then the other, any stars that suddenly become brighter are easily seen.

In a rich star field was a large, almost exactly circular, dark patch.

Further study demonstrated that this cloud was moving directly toward the sun, and that it appeared to demonstrate intelligence. Scientists puzzled over how an intelligent entity could control an enormous gaseous nebula, and decided that it must be done through the manipulation of magnetic fields within the cloud of gas:

"I imagine that the beast orders the material of the cloud magnetically, that by means of magnetic fields he can move materials wherever he wants inside the cloud."
(Read more about magnetic control of nebulae)

I can't resist providing this Irwin Allen-esque cover shot from the 1959 paperback edition of the book - now that's a scary cloud!


(Earth menaced by a power beyond the planets and older than time!)

Read more about this discovery at a very well-written technical article in Astrobiology Magazine - see Not So Nebulous. Thanks to Winchell Chung for suggesting this story.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 1/7/2005)

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