PADUCAH, Ky. -- From now on, one little corner of the sky will
be known as "McNeil's Nebula."
It's the dream of every backyard stargazer -- to discover something new in the heavens one night.
That very thing happened late last month for Paducah amateur astronomer Jay McNeil while he was using his telescope to photograph the area near the constellation Orion the Hunter.
McNeil is active in the West Kentucky Amateur Astronomers who meet each month beneath the dark skies of nearby Land Between the Lakes.
McNeil used a new telescope in the breezy, subfreezing Paducah air to which he attached a special charged-coupled device camera when scanning the area. His work schedule, though, caused him to put off processing the images for almost a week.
On Jan. 29, he began work on the images and found something unexpected on the black or "luminance" layer of his exposures.
"I almost immediately noticed a peculiar, almost funky-looking tiny elongated object on my master luminance frame. Having observed this area of Orion on many occasions, both visually and on other's photographs, I soon realized that I had never before noted such an object in this area of the sky. The curious-looking object was rather small in appearance, however it was still quite conspicuous -- a little too conspicuous to have gone unnoticed," he said.
McNeil quickly consulted various astronomy references for identification, but came up short.
"I just knew that the ‘fuzzy' object would show up there," he said. "To my great surprise, however, it did not. Holy Cow! Could I have just made a new discovery?" he asked himself.
McNeil, a serious amateur who knows the scientific value and procedure for reporting new celestial occurrences, notified a friend at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., and the Hawaiian astronomer who maintains the Catalogue of Herbig-Haro Objects.
"Bo (Reipurth in Hawaii) reported back to me that he suspected a deeply imbedded fetal star previously only noted in the infrared and radio part of the spectrum was responsible for this ‘new' nebula," McNeil said.
"At this point, the chain of events become almost surreal," the Paducah astronomer said. "Within 24 hours of me actually noticing the object on my image taken with a 3-inch scope, Bo Reipurth and his colleagues were imaging it with an 87-inch telescope in Hawaii.
"Next thing you know, Reipurth is requesting that the massive 320-inch diameter optics of the Gemini Telescope be pointed towards "my" object," he said. "The idea of this thing evolving from my 3-inch scope -- which one can easily hold using one hand -- to an instrument with more than 342 tons of moving parts is absolutely staggering! The fact that it all happened in less than 48 hours is even more thought provoking. "
Technically speaking, Reipurth speculates that the newly discovered nebula was created when a deeply imbedded fetal star known only as IRAS 05436-0007 somehow erupted. The young star's sudden increase in brightness consequently resulted in the surrounding cocoon of gas and dust becoming illuminated much like a lighthouse would light up a foggy harbor.
"I must admit that the nebula's discovery was quite serendipitous," McNeil said. "However, as with most things there is a lesson involved. It's actually ironic-- I've spent countless hours over the last 20 years of my life seeking out the darkest of skies and peering into the largest of telescopes at distant galaxies, all the time thinking in the back of my mind ‘wouldn't it be fascinating if that tiny stellaring near that galaxy core was a dying star that had yet to be discovered?'
"Who would've known that on a freezing cold night with 20 mph wind gusts I would take an image of a famous Messier object with a 3-inch scope from my suburban backyard and find a sun-like star in the process of forming right here in our very own spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy," McNeil reflected.