What Created This Hole in Space?

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Astronomers reclassified a bizarre dark patch sighted by the Hubble space telescope in a distant nebula in 1999. What is it?

The nebula, NGC 1999, was once thought to be two separate types of nebula. NASA classified the inky black area of the image as a dark nebula, a type which contains dust so thick that it blocks light from reaching the Hubble’s sensor. But new images of NGC 1999 from NASA’s next-generation Herschel infrared space telescope showed that nope: It’s just a really, really big hole.

When the Herschel telescope was trained on the area, scientists expected to use its infrared capabilities to penetrate past the darkness to get a better look at the dark nebula. Instead they found nothing to see at all. “It’s as surprising as knowing you have worms tunneling under your lawn, but finding one morning that they have created a huge, yawning pit,” said astronomer Tom Megeath of the University of Toledo.

The discovery may lend new insights into how stars are created and cast off from their birthplace. Nebula like NGC 1999 are known as star nurseries, with dust, hydrogen and other elements eventually clumping together to form the basis of a star. Astronomers think one of these newborn stars could have cast off its birth nebula with a jet of hot gas, creating the hole.