There’s something weird about the ghostly remnants of dead stars in the middle of the Milky Way. Planetary nebulae of a particular kind all seem to be aligned the same way, close to parallel to the galactic plane.
This peculiarity was first spotted more than a decade ago by eagle-eyed astronomer Bryan Rees of The University of Manchester in the UK. Now, Rees and his team, led by astronomer Shuyu Tan of the University of Hong Kong, think they’re closer to figuring out the reason: the magnetic environment in the region of the galaxy where this alignment is observed.
“This finding,” says astrophysicist Albert Zijlstra of The University of Manchester, “pushes us closer to understanding the cause for this mysterious alignment.”
Planetary nebulae are a particularly ethereal, relatively short-lived phenomenon. They’re the cast-off remains of stars like the Sun that reach the end of their lives and eject their outer material before the core collapses down into a stellar remnant known as a white dwarf.
Because they’re shed without the blast of a supernova, the nebulae often remain relatively intact, floating like ghostly glowing bubbles in space. This is how they got their name – because some of them are round, like planets.
If the white dwarf shares its system with another star, as many do, the planetary nebula will look quite different. Scientists think the orbital motion between the two stars in binary systems carves the nebula into lobes, like an hourglass.
They found the nebulae that exhibit the peculiar alignment are those in which the binary is on a very small, tight orbit.
This, they say, is a clue that can help unravel the history of the galaxy’s formation.
“Planetary nebulae offer us a window into the heart of our galaxy and this insight deepens our understanding of the dynamics and evolution of the Milky Way’s bulge region,” Zijlstra explains.
“The formation of stars in the bulge of our galaxy is a complex process that involves various factors such as gravity, turbulence, and magnetic fields. Until now, we have had a lack of evidence for which of these mechanisms could be causing this process to happen and generating this alignment.”
The only plausible explanation for the curiously neat alignment of this specific subset of planetary nebulae is magnetic fields, according to the researchers. While the magnetic fields in the galactic bulge aren’t currently strong enough to account for the uniform arrangement, they could have been in the past, locking the binaries into alignment long prior to the formation of the planetary nebulae.
This would imply that younger binaries, and those with wider orbital separation, would not necessarily be prone to the same effect – which is consistent with the team’s observations. However, more observations and analysis will be needed to confirm that this is what is tilting planetary nebulae in the galactic center.
“The significance in this research,” Zijlstra says, “lies in the fact that we now know that the alignment is observed in this very specific subset of planetary nebulae.”
The research has been published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.