Red Square Nebula

The unknown origins of this nebula make it one of the most mysterious objects we know of.

This image, created by combining infrared exposures from the Mount Palomar Hale telescope in California and the Keck-2 Telescope in Hawaii, is puzzling to say the least. Its symmetrical and ordered square shape looks like something that was put together in Photoshop, but it’s very much real and equally as interesting.

The Red Square Nebula, or MWC 922, is found in the night sky near the Serpens constellation. It is a bipolar nebula, which refers to its symmetrical appearance around a central point, and it is one of the best examples of such a nebula that we know of in the universe.

Its central star is responsible for the appearance of the nebula. It is thought that this star expelled cones of gas during later development stages of its life in opposite directions, visible in this image moving diagonally up to the right and downwards to the left. Amazingly, the edges of the cones form almost a perfect right angle with each other, creating a bright central square and a slightly dimmer outer square.

Stars are known to throw off material in this manner during the latter stages of their life, either prior to a supernova explosion or as the star runs out of fuel and loses its outer layers. Along the walls of the cone can be seen radial spokes emanating from the star, which further supports this hypothesis.

Red Square NebulaAn observer looking side on to the nebula rather than straight on, like us here on Earth, would likely observe a different nebula altogether. They would instead see rings of material being ejected from the central star, an indicator that this is indeed a star on its way to going supernova.

When this might be, or whether it will actually happen, is anyone’s guess. For now, though, we can merely revel in the glory of this fantastic nebula and hopefully find others like it that might help unearth the mystery of its past, present and future.