The Coldest Place in the Universe

The space between the stars can get pretty cold, but have you ever wondered what the coldest place in the universe is? The answer: the Boomerang Nebula, 5,000 light-years away from Earth.

Let’s explore the features of the Boomerang Nebula and the reasons why it’s earned the name ‘coldest place in the universe’.

What Is the Boomerang Nebula?

The Boomerang Nebula is a protoplanetary nebula found in the vicinity of the constellation Centaurus. Recorded measurements place the distance between Earth and the Boomerang Nebula to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 light-years. The nebula is thought to be approximately 1 light-year in radius.

This planetary nebula exists as a cloud of dust and ionized gases, surrounding a dying red giant star. Though the red giant is following the projected life stages for stars of its class, astronomers have noted that it is doing so at an accelerated rate – about 100 times the speed of most other stars of its kind.

The Boomerang Nebula

How Did It Get Its Name?

Original images of the nebula showed a reflecting gas cloud in the shape of a boomerang. Later images from the Hubble Telescope revealed more of a bow-tie shape to the nebula, but the name stuck.

When and How Was the Boomerang Nebula Discovered?

The nebula was discovered in 1980 by astronomers Keith Taylor and Mike Scarrott, using the ground-based scope at the Siding Spring Observatory.

The two made special note of the unusual properties of nebula, prompting astronomer Raghvendra Sahai to make note of the unique interstellar phenomenon in a research paper hypothesizing the existence of extreme cold regions in space.

What Is the Actual Temperature of the Boomerang Nebula?

The Boomerang Nebula’s core temperature has been measured at -272 degrees Celsius, or -458 degrees Fahrenheit. That temperature is almost exactly 1 degree above Absolute Zero: The coldest temperature it is possible to achieve.

In comparison, the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), from the Big Bang is actually 2 degrees warmer, at -270.4 degrees Celsius.

How Does That Compare to Temperatures on Earth?

A lab at M.I.T has actually achieved a super-cooled gas that reached a temperature of -273.15 degrees Celsius. This is the closest anything has ever come to Absolute Zero, and the only recorded temperature that has ever surpassed the chill of the Boomerang Nebula.

The coldest place on Earth – Dome Fuji in Antarctica – was recorded in 2010 as having a temperature of -93.2 degrees Celsius. The Boomerang Nebula’s temperature is nearly 3 times as frigid.

The average temperature for habitable spaces is about +14 degrees Celsius, or about +57 degrees Fahrenheit, with a range between -15 and +122 degrees Celsius across the globe.

Why Is the Boomerang Nebula So Cold?

According to Sahai, who published the first research theories regarding the Boomerang Nebula, the extreme cold is caused by the rapid acceleration, expulsion and expansion of gas from the dying star at the heart of the nebula.

The winds from the star expand at a high rate, causing heat loss and creating a refrigeration effect. This natural effect is enhanced in the Boomerang Nebula due to the unusual rapidity of the star’s expulsion process.

Gases are being expelled at a rate of Approximately 164 km/s – roughly 101 miles per hour – which also blasts away a great deal of heat energy along with the expelled matter.

Why Is the Star’s Expulsion Process So Fast?

There is no definitive answer, however, Sahai did propose a theory, published in 2017. He theorized that another, smaller star, possibly part of an original binary system, collapsed into the red giant before it began the expulsion process.

According to Sahai, the interactions of two gravitational cores explains many of the properties of the anomaly at the heart of the Boomerang Nebula.

The star has also been observed to eject the outer layers of matter from two small areas, lending credence to the theory. The expansion of air through a smaller opening would help explain the super-cooling process that has been observed. The dual smaller expulsion areas may also explain the distinctive shape of the nebula.

The double lobes seen by the Hubble Telescope are unusual, and there is some debate whether this is part of the unique structure, or simply a sign that the nebula is younger than other nebulas.

Can I View the Boomerang Nebula With a Telescope at Home?

The constellation Centaurus would only be visible to those in the Southern Hemisphere, below the line of 25 degrees latitude.

Due to the ultra-cold nature of the Boomerang Nebula, it does not produce much light, making it difficult to see without a very powerful instrument.

What Are Some Other Interesting Facts About the Boomerang Nebula?

  • The Boomerang Nebula is also called the Bow-Tie Nebula.
  • Ground telescopes generally see the boomerang, whereas space-based telescopes are more likely to see the bowtie.
  • Its official designation is the Centaurus Bipolar Nebula.
  • In the last 1,500 years, the star at the center of the nebula has lost 1.5 times the mass of our sun in ejection.
  • The red giant that created the nebula was actually once similar in size, temperature and composition to our own sun.
  • The nebula actually absorbs Cosmic Microwave Background light.
  • The central star will eventually become a white dwarf star. It is hypothesized that this star will become the core of a new planetary nebula, which may eventually give rise to a solar system similar to ours.
  • Further observations have revealed by observations with ALMA radio interferometer reveal a cold sphere of gas similar to more traditional nebulae. There are also indications that the outer edges of the nebula may be warming slightly, likely equalizing to background temperatures. As of now, no other similar phenomenon has been recorded in the universe.
  • Recently, the Boomerang Nebula has become a source of interest to fans of the game ‘Among Us’, who claim the galaxy possesses a remarkable similarity to one of the characters. This supposed similarity has recently become the subject of a viral meme on Twitter.
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