Hubble captures creepy carbon star CW Leonis peering out from a screen of smoke

To celebrate Halloween, this week’s image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the star CW Leonis, which Hubble scientists say “resembles a baleful orange eye glaring from behind a shroud of smoke.”

CW Leonis is a carbon star, a type of red giant that contains more carbon than oxygen and therefore creates a sooty atmosphere with a reddish color. Carbon monoxide is formed in the upper layers of its atmosphere, consuming the oxygen and leaving other carbon atoms free to create soot-like compounds. It is these sooty compounds that create the dust shroud surrounding the star.

A striking observation of the carbon star CW Leonis, which resembles a baleful orange eye glaring from behind a shroud of smoke.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope celebrates Halloween this year with a striking observation of the carbon star CW Leonis, which resembles a baleful orange eye glaring from behind a shroud of smoke. ESA/Hubble & NASA, T. Ueta, H. Kim

As well as being a fun Halloween celebration, imaging CW Leonis is also important for scientists studying carbon stars. It is the closest carbon star to Earth, so astronomers can see more about how it interacts with the envelope of dust and gas around it. “This is a particularly interesting object to study as the envelope of CW Leonis is relatively turbulent, with a complex inner structure that astronomers believe may be sculpted by a nearby companion star,” the European Space Agency writes.

The data that was used to create this image was captured by Hubble over a period between 2011 and 2016 by its Wide Field Camera 3. However, more recently Hubble has had a problem with its systems. This week, all of the telescope’s instruments were placed into safe mode, during which they do not collect data, due to a synchronization issue.

“Hubble’s science instruments went into safe mode on Monday after experiencing synchronization issues with internal spacecraft communications,” the official Hubble account tweeted on October 25. “Science observations have been temporarily suspended while the team investigates the issue. The instruments remain in good health.”

This follows a problem with Hubble hardware that occurred this summer. The telescope was in safe mode for more than a month while engineers investigated the problem and fixed it by switching to backup hardware. Hubble is more than 30 years old now, and its aging hardware could continue to experience such issues. But engineers have proven skilled at overcoming these problems, so fingers crossed that this latest issue can be fixed soon as well.

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