Humans like to see things where there’s nothing but visual patterns. Even NASA: the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) has captured an “image [that] shows the energised remains of a dead star, a structure nicknamed the Hand of God after its resemblance to a hand.” Except now it looks more like The Flaming Fist of God.
According to Hongjun An of McGill University, Montreal, Canada, they “don’t know if the hand shape is an optical illusion. With NuSTAR, the hand looks more like a fist, which is giving [them] some clues.” I can see the fist in flames too, surrounding the knuckles.
One of the big mysteries of this object, called a pulsar wind nebula, is whether the pulsar’s particles are interacting with the material in a specific way to make it appear as a hand, or if the material is in fact shaped like a hand.
But besides this cosmic Rorschach test, the important thing is that NASA’s NuStar is giving us a “unique viewpoint, in seeing the highest-energy X-rays, is showing us well-studied objects and regions in a whole new light,” according to Fiona Harrison, the mission’s principal investigator at CalTech, in Pasadena, California.
This is what astronomers think is actually happening:
The image shows a nebula 17,000 light-years away, powered by a dead, spinning star called PSR B1509-58, or B1509 for short. The dead star, called a pulsar, is the leftover core of a star that exploded in a supernova. The pulsar is only about 19 kilometers (12 miles) in diameter but packs a big punch: it is spinning around nearly seven times every second, spewing particles into material that was upheaved during the star’s violent death. These particles are interacting with magnetic fields around the ejected material, causing it to glow with X-rays. The result is a cloud that, in previous images, looked like an open hand.