An orbiting European telescope looking for young stars recently found an unexpected surprise: a truly empty hole in space.
The hole lies in a nebula called NGC 1999, a bright cloud of dust and gas in the constellation Orion. The nebula glows with light from a nearby star.
The Hubble Space Telescope first snapped a picture of the nebula in December 1999. Astronomers assumed that an inky spot in the cloud was a blob of cooler gas and dust that's so dense it blocks visible light from passing through. (See a Hubble picture that shows dark globs in another nebula.)
But new pictures from the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory show that the blob really is an empty void. That's because Herschel sees in infrared, which should allow the telescope to peer through dense dust and see any objects inside.
Even to Herschel, however, the blob looked black.
Astronomers think that the 0.2-light-year-wide hole was made by the fitful birthing process of a nearby stellar embryo called V380 Ori. (Related: "Big Bang Ripples Formed Universe's First Stars.")
The protostar is already 3.5 times the mass of our sun. The team thinks the newborn is signaling its near maturity by shooting out superfast columns of gas from its poles that are blasting away any leftover material from the star's formation.
"We think the star is launching a bipolar jet at hundreds of kilometers per second that is punching a gigantic hole in the surrounding cloud," said team leader Tom Megeath of the University of Toledo in Ohio. "Essentially these bolts of gas are being shot forward and are sweeping away all the gas and dust."
Herschel, the Astronomer, Also Saw Space Holes
Megeath added that the telescope that found the hole is named after 19th-century astronomer William Herschel. In his calalogs of the night sky, Herschel recorded several black patches that he thought were holes but which turned out to be dark clouds.
"From then onward, whenever someone saw what looked like a dark hole in space, the presumption was that it was a cloud," Megeath said.
"How ironic that now, nearly a century and half later, Herschel [the telescope] has looked at something everyone thought of as cloud, and it actually turns out to be a hole."