An amateur astrophotographer discovers a new “stinger ghost” in the tail of the constellation Scorpio
An astrophotographer has found a speck of oxygen he calls the Phantom Stinger Nebula, which appears to have been overlooked by generations of astronomers, amateur and professional alike. The discovery is part of an amateur project to explore the sky at a wavelength arguably neglected by professional observatories — the 495.9-500.7 nanometer range where doubly ionized oxygen releases two powerful atoms. Spectral lines. Surprisingly, this discovery was made in a well-studied constellation, showing how much more remains to be found.
In an age when giant telescopes proliferate, and space telescopes can operate 24 hours a day, you might think there is not much left for amateurs with much smaller instruments to find. This is especially the case for those working from locations obscured by city lights, but Steeve Body has shown that there is still gold to be mined in the sky.
Award-winning photographer Buddy, a music producer by day, has captured some stunning images of deep space captured using modest-sized telescopes. He was approached by astronomy student Tim Schaefer to join a team calling itself New Horizons (NHZ) that explores the skies for signs of oxygen-rich nebulae.
Boddy told IFLScience that many of his artworks were captured during his trips to dark-sky locations, but he lives in Bentley, not far from the geographic center of Melbourne and close to one of the city’s main highways. Street lights and sky glow make many forms of astronomy impossible from such a location, but when the object is at home it uses narrow filters that cut out all light other than the precise wavelengths it is looking for.
Learn about the Phantom Stinger Nebula.
Image credit: Steve Boddy (The New Horizons)
Using this process, Boddy and other NHZ members followed the detected nebulae with radio telescopes to see if they had the characteristic blue glow indicative of oxygen III transmission.
Often, Boddy told IFLScience, they explode, and discover that if there is any oxygen to see, it will take either larger telescopes or exposures of up to a hundred hours to find it. This was the case when Boddy tried to search for the remnants of a recently discovered supernova in Scorpio. “I filmed for 15 to 20 hours and there was no sign of him,” he said.
However, in the corner of the photo he was taking, his body spotted a patch of blue, too far away from the rest to be associated with it. When Boddy tried again, this time by placing the patch in the center of his field, he revealed the nebula captured above. It required 20 hours of exposure time over two nights and extensive processing to detect it.
Bode or his collaborators were unable to find any record of the nebula. A professional astronomer in contact with a member of the NHZ team found a reference in a Chinese magazine to something in roughly the right place. Unfortunately, it has so far been impossible to access the journal to confirm that the reference is the same as the object found.
Therefore, the NHZ team doesn’t know what they found, how far away it was, and why. “There is a hot young star that appears to be in the middle and could be the source,” Boddy said. “However, this type of oxygen nebula is usually lined up with a Wolf-Rayet star, and this one isn’t, so we’re not sure if they’re connected or not.”
With the possibility of being the first person to see the oxygen patch, the body knew it was time to give it a name. “It’s right in the scorpion’s stinger, and it’s a bit like the stinger itself. It’s hard to see it except at that wavelength, so we named it ‘The Phantom Stinger.’”
However, after they made this discovery, Body and the other NHZers learned there was nowhere to record it. When Charles Messier kept finding mysterious spots in the sky that he confused with comets, he created the first catalog of nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters. Hobbyists still use it 250 years later to find the most amazing small telescope views in the sky. Much larger catalogs of galaxies exist today, but no one tracks discoveries like these. An astronomer runs a passion project cataloging new planetary nebulae, but he says it’s beyond his ability to expand into other types of gas clouds. “We might have to start a catalog ourselves,” Buddy said.
Body sells high-quality prints of some of his most dramatic images. Although he admitted to IFLScience that the Phantom Stinger is “not as pretty” as some of his other work, he has made prints available in case anyone thinks the story and name make up for it.