Coldest Place in the Universe: Exploring a Frozen Space Boomerang
Certainly, we have some seriously chilly places on planet Earth. Perhaps, even your own town gets unbearably cold during the Winter months. Actually, our planet’s record-holder was Antarctica, coming in at a frigid -129º F! But, Earth is one tiny dot in a vast universe. So, where is the coldest place in the universe?
Coldest place in the universe: absolute zero
First, understanding the coldest place in the universe, means understanding absolute zero.
Unlike heat, which can keep increasing without any limits, cold has a stopping point. Simply put, the colder temperatures get, the slower atoms move. Finally, once temperatures reach a certain point, atoms basically stop moving all together! We call this particular temperature absolute zero! Absolute zero occurs at a chilling -459º F (-273º C)!
Coldest place in the universe: Boomerang Nebula
Officially, space is extremely cold. Yet, deep in the constellation Centaurus, the Boomerang Nebula holds the record for coldest place in the known universe.
In fact, the frozen region is only one degree above absolute zero! That’s even colder than the frozen background leftover from the big bang, or space itself.
Actually, the Boomerang Nebula was once a star, very similar to our Sun. But, nearing the end of its life, the star shed its outer layers. Having nothing to do with planets, we call this shedding a planetary nebula.
What causes the coldest place in the universe?
As the Boomerang’s central star dies, its blasts dust and gas outward. Now, as the nebula continues expanding, it cools itself! In fact, the Boomerang Nebula is blowing material much faster than typical dying stars. Plus, blown out in twin jets, gas gives this nebula more of a bow tie shape than a Boomerang!
Actually, you can do a simple experiment to see why the Boomerang Nebula is so cold.
- Inhale, holding your breath.
- Hold your hand in front of your face and exhale, with your mouth wide open.
- Inhale and hold your breath again.
- Exhale into your hand again, but puckering your mouth into only a small opening.
Technically, both times, air becomes heated inside your body. But, when puckering your mouth, exhaled air now becomes cooled.
In fact, the Boomerang Nebula exhibits these same, very simple concepts. Then, blasted through tiny openings, the star’s materials become cooled, same as your breath!
Coldest place in the universe takes on a new shape
Formerly, Hubble photos of the “Boomerang” Nebula revealed more of a bow tie, or hourglass shape. Ultimately, such shapes are typical with gases bursting from a star’s poles in twin jets.
However, using Hubble and ground-based telescopes in Chile, the Boomerang Nebula reveals newer structures still. Now, bright carbon monoxide (red) reveals the shape previously seen by Hubble. But, we also see outer icy gases flowing out in more circular shapes (blue).
Being a new, or young planetary nebula, the central star has only just begun. In fact, later in its death, the star will blast hot ultraviolet radiation, illuminating the nebula in vivid colors. Imagine the show this frozen nebula will put on 200 million years from now!