A streak of purple “lightning” sprawls across the cosmos in a gorgeous new image from NASA.
Light and energy twist and turn in an explosive relationship between a stellar corpse known as a white dwarf and a variable red giant star called R Aquarii (R Aqr) orbiting each other out in space. NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope captured the energetic objects in a stellar new image that looks like a fiery volcanic cloud with a giant, purple streak of lightning piercing through.
The image shows the pair orbiting each other as an outburst of energy shoots out from the white dwarf, a superdense remnant of a star like our sun that has run out of fuel.
As the white dwarf and highly variable red giant orbit one another, the white dwarf pulls material from the red giant onto its own surface.
Eventually, when enough of this material accumulates on the white dwarf, it triggers an explosion that emits energy into space. Astronomers have witnessed this type of event before and have found evidence for such explosions in older data as well.
In the new imagery, Hubble has captured the red and blue structures while data from Chandra shows up as the purple “lightning.” This “lightning” is actually the jet of energy beaming from the white dwarf and interacting with surrounding material. When the jet hits the material around it, it creates shock waves, according to NASA.