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An image from the Hubble Space Telescope focuses on jets of hot gas blazing forth from a protostar called Herbig-Haro 24. (Credit: NASA / ESA)
An image from the Hubble Space Telescope focuses on jets of hot gas blazing forth from a protostar in the middle of a dusty cloud known as Herbig-Haro 24. (Credit: NASA / ESA)

Leave it to the scientists behind the Hubble Space Telescope to capitalize on the craziness over “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Their latest cosmic snapshot shows what looks like a double-bladed lightsaber worthy of Darth Maul.

The lightsaber is actually a pair of jets of superheated gas, emanating a newborn star that’s hidden in a cloak of dust as thick as a Jedi Knight’s cloak. This scene isn’t set in a galaxy far, far away. Instead, it’s 1,350 light-years away in our own galaxy, in a celestial cradle called the Orion B molecular cloud complex.

The star feeds upon the spinning disk of cool hydrogen gas and dust that surrounds its middle. When the gas is heated up, some of it is shot back outward along the paths of least resistance. Those paths are along the axis of rotation, at the top and bottom of the star. That’s what’s causing the jets.

Hubble shows the jets in infrared light as they cut through the surrounding murk at more than 100,000 mph. The swirls of nebulosity form what’s known as a Herbig-Haro object – in this case, HH 24.

That’s the scientific story. But the Hubble team couldn’t resist having some fun with the “Star Wars” angle. Here’s just one of the sentences from a news release on the European Space Agency’s Hubble site:

“The Force is strong with these twin jets; their effect on their environment demonstrates the true power of the Dark Side with a blast stronger than one from a fully armed and operational Death Star battle station.”

Meanwhile, NASA’s associate administrator for science, John Grunsfeld, explains in a news release from the Space Telescope Science Institute why it’s worth making the connection between the fiction and the facts of space science:

“Science fiction has been an inspiration to generations of scientists and engineers, and the film series Star Wars is no exception. There is no stronger case for the motivational power of real science than the discoveries that come from the Hubble Space Telescope as it unravels the mysteries of the universe.”

So behold the power of Hubble’s bright side – and enjoy the show.

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