It's a bird, it's a plane, it's ... a manatee? The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) believes that a gas cloud in the constellation Aquila bears an uncanny resemblance to the endangered aquatic mammal.
Heidi Winter, executive assistant to NRAO's director, first noticed the similarity. And Tania Burchell, an NRAO media producer who used to work in manatee conservation, quickly saw it as "a wonderful opportunity to bridge two worlds—biology and astronomy."
The cloud, or nebula, which is named W50, has more in common with manatees than just its shape. It is the remnant of a star explosion from 20,000 years ago. Particle beams that shoot from the explosion's center, where a star and a black hole orbit each other, form a spiral pattern resembling scars.
Manatees also bear scars. "Around 80 percent of manatees in Florida have visible scarring," said Michael Lusk, manager of Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Because manatees prefer shallow water, collisions with boat propellers are frequent.
The resemblance continues. Like the "sea cow," which can blend into murky water, the nebula is hard to spot. It's approximately 18,000 light-years away, so only one bright arc can be seen by the human eye. Astronomers first saw the ghostly nebula with a telescope that collects a kind of light that radiates at longer wavelengths called radio waves.
W50's new nickname, the Manatee Nebula, and its first photos were unveiled January 19 at the Florida Manatee Festival. "People have an underlying love for the natural world—sky or sea," said Burchell. "We're human beings on this planet, looking up or looking down."
The event marks the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, which aims to protect critical habitats. Florida's manatee population has risen from around 700 in the 1970s to 5,000 today, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering reclassifying the species from endangered to threatened.