I never imagined I was going to see something like this: A video of a star bursting in space, illuminating the interstellar dust around it at the speed of light. This is not a computer simulation. It's an actual time-lapse video taken over four years by the Hubble—and scientists don't know its origin yet.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has been observing the V838 Mon light echo since 2002. Each new observation of the light echo reveals a new and unique "thin-section" through the interstellar dust around the star. This video morphs images of the light echo from the Hubble taken at multiple times between 2002 and 2006. The numerous whorls and eddies in the interstellar dust are particularly noticeable. Possibly they have been produced by the effects of magnetic fields in the space between the stars.
V838 Monocerotis—in the constellation Monoceros, 20,000 light years away from Earth—suffered a sudden outburst in 2002, catching astronomers by surprise. The variable red star got so big that it became one of the largest stars ever observed, producing 600,000 times more light that the Sun.
Scientists thought it was a nova, but then they realized they were wrong. The origin of this spectacular outbursts—which illuminated the interstellar dust around it at the speed of light—is still unknown. These are the current theories:
- An atypical nova outbursts (this is very unlikely.)
- A thermal pulse of a dying star (the new pulse illuminates the layers of star material previously ejected its previous outbursts.)
- A thermonuclear event withing a massive supergiant (in which the helium in one of the layers of the massive star ignites and starts a fusion process.)
- A mergeburst (the burst caused by the merge of two main sequence stars.)
- A planetary capture event (in which the star has swallowed one of its giant gas planets.)