Menzel 3: This Giant Ant Is Shooting Lasers Through Space

5_18_Ant Nebula
Menzel 3, also known as the ant nebula, is imaged here by the Hubble Space Telescope. It's two glowing balls of dust and gas resemble the head and body of an ant. Hubble Heritage Team/STScI/AURA/NASA/ESA

A weird nebula shaped like an ant is even stranger than scientists thought. Now, a team of astronomers have discovered it's shooting lasers into space.

This incredibly rare phenomenon, they think, is evidence this nebula is shrouding a double star system. The research was published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Stars with a similar mass to our Sun eventually morph into dense, white dwarf stars, shedding layers and layers of gas and dust. This matter shines brightly as it slowly moves through space, creating vibrant and colorful clouds known as nebulae.

Officially called Menzel 3, this particular nebula is nicknamed "Ant" for its odd shape. Two misshapen glowing orbs resemble the head and body of the tiny insects.

Data from the European Space Agency's giant Herschel infrared observatory revealed Ant's secret weapons. Beyond the visible spectrum of light, the nebula is shooting out incredibly rare infrared space lasers.

By quirky coincidence, the nebula's official namesake—U.S. astronomer Donald Menzel—was an early pioneer in studying the potential existence of space lasers.

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On Earth, the word "laser"—an acronym for "light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation"—conjures up images of thin lines of intensely bright light.

On Earth you might find lasers slicing through metal, fixing damaged eyes and scanning barcodes. In space, laser emissions are found as invisible infrared signals.

"We detected a very rare type of emission called hydrogen recombination laser emission, which is only produced in a narrow range of physical conditions," Isabel Aleman, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Universities of São Paulo in Brazil and Leiden in the Netherlands, said in a statement. "Such emission has only been identified in a handful of objects before and it is a happy coincidence that we detected the kind of emission that Menzel suggested, in one of the planetary nebulae that he discovered."

Incredibly dense gas near the central star—ten thousand times denser than that found in a normal nebula—is the secret behind the Ant's lasers. These areas are usually quite empty as gas and dust travels out from the star.

"The only way to keep such dense gas close to the star is if it is orbiting around it in a [disk]," co-author Albert Zijlstra of the University of Manchester, U.K., said in the statement. "In this nebula, we have actually observed a dense [disk] in the very centre that is seen approximately edge-on. This orientation helps to amplify the laser signal."

The disk, he said, could be evidence of a second, companion star. "It is hard to get the ejected gas to go into orbit unless a companion star deflects it in the right direction, he explained.

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The team think the original, central star is gathering mass from its as-yet-unseen dying sibling, creating the disk.

The laser, Zijlstra added, offers a unique opportunity to understand this second star. Toshiya Ueta, principal investigator of the Herschel Planetary Nebula Survey project, added in a statement: "This was a remarkable discovery that we did not anticipate. There is certainly more to stellar nebulae than meets the eye!"

Updated | Correction: This article has been corrected to accurately reflect Isabel Aleman's institutional affiliation.