Hubble's Time-Lapse of a 'Light Echo'

This beautiful video shows what it looks like after one star eats another star

Well, this is awesome. 

Scientists have been keeping an eye on an unusual star called V838 Monocerotis since 2002, when it had an explosion that made it, for a few weeks, 600,000 times brighter than our sun.

Ever since then, light from that outburst has been rippling across the universe and illuminating space dust in what the European Space Agency calls "the most spectacular 'light echo' in the history of astronomy." The echo alone, according to NASA, spans six light years of outer space. And, now, thanks to a time-lapse look from Hubble photos of the light echo, you can watch the way the echo has transformed—about 20,000 light-years away from Earth at the outer edge of our Milky Way galaxy—over a four-year period: 

Loading player...

(It's also worth checking out the light echo in GIF form that Jesus Diaz posted over at Gizmodo.)

So what caused this stellar explosion in the first place? It was clear from the get-go that this thing was unlike the novas and supernovas that skywatchers know well. Novas are mammoth nuclear explosions that happen after a normal star "dumps hydrogen onto a compact white-dwarf companion star," according to NASA. Supernovas—which are even more dazzling than novas and temporarily burn brighter than everything else in the galaxy around them—can be caused by nuclear fusion or by the collapse of a star's core. 

But none of that happened this time. Whereas a typical nova blasts a star's outer layers into space and a supernova blows apart a star entirely, V838 Monocerotis didn't even lose its outer layers. From NASA

Instead, it grew enormously in size. Its surface temperature dropped to temperatures that were not much hotter than a light bulb. This behavior of ballooning to an immense size, but not losing its outer layers, is very unusual and completely unlike an ordinary nova explosion.

This sudden and unpredictable explosion, then, may be evidence of a stage in star evolution that is "rarely seen," NASA says. One theory: A pair of stars got so close to each other that their atmospheres merged. A slightly less romantic way of describing this event: stellar cannibalism, in which one star swallows the one next to it.  

Jump to comments
Presented by

Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBURMore

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications. 
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Technology

Just In