Astronomers have found an unexpected treat on a star first described more than 400 years ago – the streak of a 13-light-year-long tail. The tail, the first seen of its kind, could provide clues about how celestial bodies are formed from the material spat out by such ageing stars.
The streak was spied by the NASA space telescope Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) as part of a survey of the ultraviolet spectrum of the sky that the telescope began in 2003 and is expected to complete later this year. According to Mark Seibert, a co-author on the paper in Nature1 this week and an astronomer with the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Pasadena, California, other telescopes missed the special feature of the star — called Mira — because they were either looking in the wrong wavelength of light, or simply peering too closely.
“Mira has been studied in every conceivable wavelength by the Hubble Space Telescope,” Seibert says. “But Hubble didn’t see the tail because it only looks at a very small area of the sky, so it missed all the stuff around the star itself.”