An astrophotographer has found a patch of oxygen he's named the Phantom Stinger Nebula, which appears to have been overlooked by generations of astronomers, amateur and professional alike. The discovery is part of a project by amateurs to explore the sky at a wavelength professional observatories are arguably neglecting – the 495.9-500.7 nanometer band where doubly ionized oxygen releases two strong spectral lines. Surprisingly the find was made in a particularly well-studied constellation, showing how much else there is out there still to find.
In an era where giant telescopes are multiplying, and space telescopes can operate 24 hours a day, it might be thought there's not much left for amateurs with much smaller instruments to find. That's particularly the case for those operating from locations obscured by city lights, but Steeve Body has shown there is still gold to mine in the skies.
A music producer by day, award-winning photographer Body has taken some astonishing deep-space photographs taken with modest-sized telescopes. He was contacted by astronomy student Tim Schaeffer to join a team calling themselves New Horizons (NHZ) that are exploring the skies for signs of oxygen-rich nebulae.
Body told IFLScience that many of his works of art have been taken while on trips to dark sky sites, but he lives in Bentleigh, not far from the geographical center of Melbourne and near one of the city's major highways. Streetlights and sky glow make many forms of astronomy impossible from such a location, but when at home Body uses narrow filters that cut out all the light other than the exact wavelengths he is looking for.
Using this process Body and the other NHZ members have followed up on nebulae discovered using radio telescopes to see if they have the distinctive blue glow that signifies the oxygen III transition.
Often, Body told IFLScience, they strike out, finding that if there is any oxygen there to see it would require either larger telescopes or exposures up to a hundred hours long to find it. This was the case when Body tried looking for a recently discovered supernova remnant in Scorpio. “I shot for 15 to 20 hours and there was no trace of it,” he said.
However, in the corner of the image he was taking Body spotted a patch of blue, too far from the remnant to be associated with it. When Body tried again, this time placing the patch at the center of his field, he turned up this nebule captured above. It required 20 hours of exposure time over two nights and extensive processing to reveal it.
Neither Body nor his collaborators could find any record of the nebula. A professional astronomer in contact with a member of the NHZ team found a reference in a Chinese journal to something at about the right spot. Unfortunately, access to the journal for confirmation of whether the reference is the same object Body has found has been impossible to come by so far.
Consequently, the NHZ team doesn't know what it is they have found, how far away it is, and what caused it. “There is a young hot star that looks to be in the middle that could be the source,” Body said. “However, usually this type of oxygen nebulae aligns with a Wolf-Rayet star, and this isn't one, so we're not sure if they're connected.”
With the possibility he is the first person to see the oxygen patch Body realized it was time to give it a name. “It's right in Scorpio's stinger, and it looks a bit like a stinger itself. It's hard to see except at this wavelength, so we called it 'The Phantom Stinger,'” he told IFLScience.
Having made the discovery, however, Body and the other NHZers have learned there is nowhere to register it. When Charles Messier kept finding fuzzy patches in the sky he would confuse for comets he created the first catalog of nebula, galaxies, and star clusters. It continues to be used by amateurs 250 years later to find the sky's most spectacular small-telescope sights. Far larger catalogs exist today of galaxies, but no one is keeping track of discoveries like these. One astronomer is running a passion project cataloging new planetary nebulae but considers it beyond his capacity to extend to other types of gas clouds. “We may have to start a catalog ourselves,” Body said.
Body sells high-quality prints of some of his most breathtaking images. Although he acknowledged to IFLScience that the Phantom Stinger is “Not as pretty” as some of his other work, he's made prints available in case anyone thinks the story, and the name, make up for that.