If Florida manatees could survive living in space, one would probably be forgiven for mistaking the image of a newly discovered star system for exactly that.
Known officially as W50, the newly discovered celestial body seems, at first glance, to resemble a floating manatee. The image, which was captured by the Very Large Array — a grouping of 27 radio antennas situated near Socorro, New Mexico — is a rare glimpse into deep space.
The watery-looking nebula is the result of a star that expired in a supernova explosion about 20,000 years ago, according to astronomers. Before expiring, the star apparently shed its outer gaseous layers, which left the resulting manatee-shape cloud that can be seen in the image. The Manatee Nebula, which lies 18,000 light-years away, is located in the constellation of Aquila. The remaining gravitationally-crushed relic of the massive star — most likely a black hole — feeds on gas from a very close, companion star, creating the illusion of a manatee swimming through the cosmos. The star system, both its black hole and its feeder star, shines brightly in both radio waves and X-rays and is known collectively as the SS433 microquasar, according to astronomers.
The cloud itself is fairly large, measuring 700 light years across. W50 is the latest nebula to be named after a creature living on Earth. The Manatee Nebula joins the Crab Nebula, the Pelican Nebula, the Owl Nebula, and the Eagle nebula, among others.
Florida manatees are large, gray aquatic mammals with bodies that are propelled by a flat, paddle-shaped tail. The creatures, which have had to deal with threats ranging from boat propellers to climate change, are listed as endangered by the U.S. federal government. An estimated 5,000 are thought to live in the state of Florida, according to state officials.
The massive creatures can grow to 1,000 pounds and up to ten feet in length. The gentle, lumbering beasts propel themselves through the warm waters of Florida’s Everglades, where National Park officials work to protect them. However, in summer months they can be found as far west as Texas and as far north as Massachusetts. A majority of summer sightings are largely confined to Alabama, Georgia,and South Carolina, though.
The creature, when viewed from above, often appears to lay on its back with its trademark flippers crossed across its chest. Astronomers say the trademark pose was largely the basis for naming the nebula after the Florida native.
According to astronomers at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) — the organization responsible for snapping the image — the decision to name the nebula after the endangered creature was partly the result of a coordinated effort between two agencies. The Florida Manatee Festival in Crystal River, Florida, joined the NRAO in developing the name and a ceremony announcing the decision was held earlier this month.