A stunning new photo from the Hubble Space Telescope has offered spectacular perspective on a distant interstellar body. This nebula with the gigantic southern hemisphere star RS Puppis at its heart fluctuates in brightness over a six-week period, allowing for some incredible imaging opportunities that capture light rippling across its surface.
Cepheid variable stars are a type of star that undergo a repeating cycle of brightness, as pulses of light emanate from the star and ripple outwards in what are known as a "light echoes."
RS Puppis happens to be one of the more luminous of this class of stars, with an average intrinsic brightness that is 15,000 times brighter than our own Sun's luminosity. It also has our star covered in mass ten times over, and is 200 times larger for good measure.
The image shows RS Puppis smack bang in the center, shrouded by colorful swirls of reflective dust lit up by the star itself. NASA describes it as a holiday wreath dressed in glittering lights. We don't quite see it ourselves, but hey, who are we to get in the way of a little Christmas cheer.
These kinds of images are not only spectacular to look at, they can offer insights into our understanding of the universe. By tracking the fluctuations in the light of the star, along with those that ripple throughout the nebula, scientists can measure the light echoes and deduce the total distance to RS Puppis form Earth. According to NASA, this has now been narrowed down to 6,500 light years with a one percent margin for error.
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