About 1,200 light years from Earth lies a red giant star, which scientists have called V Hydrae. Now, red giants are stars that are more or less near the end of their life cycle. When running out of fuel, the star’s mass expands greatly. It’s the same fate that will befall our own Sun, and when that happens, it’s time to pack our bags and get a one-way ticket to Proxima Centauri.
When observing V Hydrae, NASA’s Hubble Telescope has noticed an unusual phenomenon. Resembling something you’d see in a comic book sci-fi, rather than on a usual day at the observatory, scientists have noticed planet-sized great balls of fire, zooming through space, near the red giant. Now, the correct term would be “great balls of plasma,” but then Jerry Lee Lewis would be a number 1 hit short.
According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the balls are roughly the size of Mercury and have double the mass of Mars. They are awfully fast too, with a speed that could run the distance between the Earth and the Moon in about 30 minutes.
The scientists say it’s impossible for V Hydrae to actually shoot fireballs into space. Their most likely explanation is that there is an unseen companion star, orbiting the red giant. Every 8.5 years, the companion collects material from V Hydrae’s fiery atmosphere. The hot gaseous matter forms an accretion disk around the smaller companion star. Later, gravity slingshots matter from the disk, forming the great balls of fire that scientists are so keen on observing.
And no, it’s not just because they look cool (even though, they’re probably awesome). Scientists actually study the phenomena to better understand planetary nebulae. These are irregularly shaped gas clouds that form around dying stars, and so far, scientists have had difficulty explaining them.
Scientists were not unaware of high-velocity objects hurling from the dying star’s orbit, but this is the first time when they got to properly observe and measure them. And while plasma balls’ temperature goes up to 17,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which twice as hot as our Sun, their life is short. Rather than causing riots through neighboring solar systems, the balls rapidly cool down and expand, until Hubble is unable to detect them anymore.
Image source. Wikipedia