boomerang_hst
The Coldest Place in the Universe
published during a waning gibbous moon.
01/28/2016

 

coldest

This symmetric cloud dubbed the Boomerang Nebula was created by a high-speed wind of gas and dust blowing from an aging central star at speeds of nearly 600,000 kilometers per hour. Credit: Hubble Heritage Team, J. Biretta (STScI) et al., (STScI/AURA), ESA, NASA

For half of the Earth, it’s winter and a large portion of the population is bundled up and blasting their heaters. The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was a mind numbing -128 degrees Fahrenheit at Vostok Station in Antarctica. But there’s a place in space that has redefined what it means to be cold and it just happens to be located in our very own Milky Way Galaxy. The Boomerang Nebula measures in at a frigid -458 degrees Fahrenheit, colder even than the background temperature of space.

The Boomerang Nebula is a pre-planetary nebula located some 5,000 light years from Earth in the constellation Centaurus. Its bowtie shape is formed by gas traveling outwards from its dying star at speeds of up to 300,000 miles per hour. Many pre-planetary nebulas take this shape formed by the expelling gas, but this dying star just happens to take home the award for coldest breakdown ever recorded. The gases cool rapidly as they are ejected out into space. This functions not unlike the principle of a refrigerator that uses expanding gas to reach cool temperatures.

Scientists used the ALMA or the Atacama Large Millimeter/Sub-millimeter Array in Chile to measure the temperature of the Boomerang. They were able to observe the distribution of carbon monoxide that glows brightly at millimeter wavelengths.

“This is important for the understanding of how stars die and become planetary nebulae,” said Raghvendra Sahai, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

There’s a chance, however, that the Boomerang Nebula might not remain the coldest place in the universe. Scientists at NASA/JPL have created an experiment called the Cold Atom Lab that is due to launch to the International Space Station this year. The Cold Atom Lab’s mission is to test ultra-cold quantum gases in the microgravity environment of the ISS. The Lab is designed to get to -459 degrees Fahrenheit. Their goal is to beat out the Boomerang’s epically cold temperature by a whopping one degree, and if they succeed then the coldest place in the universe will be right in our backyard.

What are some other really cold places in the universe? Aside from the Boomerang Nebula, (which until the Cold Atom Lab comes online is still in first place for coldest), there are only a few. Coming in next after Boomerang is actually the dark side of the Moon, which is only four degrees warmer than the coldest thing we’ve ever measured. Our Moon’s shadowed craters remain dark and cold every single day at a chilly -400 degrees F. After our Moon, the next most frigid spot is that cute little dwarf planet, Pluto. Until recently, it was thought that Pluto was the coldest object out there with its distant orbit and icy surface. Pluto is not a place we could visit, unless you could somehow survive -380 degree temperatures.

Space is a really cold place. But there are those special locations like Pluto and the Boomerang Nebula that wow even the most seasoned scientists. Luckily, when our star dies in about five billion years, none of us will be here to see it cool down and wipe out our neighborhood. So put on your jackets and hats, and be grateful that at the very least, you’re on a relatively warm planet in space.