How do you go about finding the coldest place in the universe? Well, it helps if you have a stonking great radio telescope to scan the skies. On Oct. 23, NASA reported on a chilly discovery by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. ALMA had zeroed in on the Boomerang Nebula and gauged its temperature. Not only was the dark cloud of space dust cold, it was the coldest object ever spotted in the Cosmos, barely tipping the temperature scale at one Kelvin — that’s –458 degrees Fahrenheit or –272 degrees Celsius.
As October progresses and winter slowly but surely approaches in the Northern Hemisphere, trees begin to lose their leaves and temperatures steadily drop. Think it’s been getting cold out at night where you live?
It’s nothing like this.
At a positively frigid one Kelvin (that equates to –458 degrees Fahrenheit or –272 degrees Celsius), the Boomerang Nebula in the constellation Centaurus is officially the coldest known place in the entire Universe. It’s even colder than the background temperature of space!
Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, astronomers have taken a better look at this freezing cloud of gas and dust to learn more about its frigid properties.
The Boomerang Nebula has been imaged before by both ground-based telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope, and appears in visible light to be shaped like a bow tie (or two opposing, overlapped boomerangs). But new observations using ALMA’s high-resolution capabilities have revealed its true form.
“What seemed like a double lobe, or ‘boomerang’ shape, from Earth-based optical telescopes, is actually a much broader structure that is expanding rapidly into space,” said Raghvendra Sahai, a researcher and principal scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lead author of a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal.
A thick belt of dust particles has also been found – thanks to ALMA – surrounding the star within the nebula, which prevents some wavelengths of light from passing through and creating the bow tie shape seen in previous visible light images.
So why is this nebula so incredibly cold? It’s actually cooling itself off as it grows, astronomers have found.
As the sun-like star at its center nears the end of its life it expands the nebula with rapidly outpouring gas. That expansion creates a cooling effect — similar to how expanding gas in refrigerators helps keep your ice cream from melting.
The gas in this nebula is traveling much faster than anything in your fridge, though — 500,000 km/hour (310,000 mph).
At one Kelvin the Boomerang nebula is even colder than the coldest known places in our solar system: the permanently-shadowed craters at the moon’s south pole that never receive sunlight. Even those pockets of darkness are a balmy 33 Kelvin. (For comparison, water freezes at 273.15 K.)
For that matter, even in the midst of intergalactic space where there’s “nothing” is still warmer — the cosmic microwave background glows at a steady 2.8 K.
The new research also shows that the outer edges of the nebula are warming as the outward expansion of gas slows — even though they are still slightly colder than the CMB.
“This is important for the understanding of how stars die and become planetary nebulae,” said Sahai. “Using ALMA, we were quite literally and figuratively able to shed new light on the death throes of a Sun-like star.”
The Boomerang nebula is located 5,000 light-years from Earth within our Milky Way galaxy.