Button Up: Here’s the Coldest Place in the Universe

New observations award the chilliness prize to a nebula 5,000 light years away

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Bill Saxton / NRAO / AUI / NSF / NASA / Hubble / Raghvendra Sahai

The Boomerang Nebula, called the “coldest place in the Universe,” reveals its true shape with ALMA. The background blue structure, as seen in visible light with the Hubble Space Telescope, shows a classic double-lobe shape with a very narrow central region. ALMA’s resolution and ability to see the cold molecular gas reveals the nebula’s more elongated shape, as seen in red.

It’s easy to guess where the hottest place in the universe might be—the core of a giant star, maybe, or a disk of gas heated to millions of degrees as it tries to cram its way into a super-massive black hole, or even, for a fraction of a second, a fusion reactor in New Jersey.  It’s harder to imagine the coldest place, though.

You might think that the thermometer drops as far as it can go in the vast empty darkness between stars. But you’d be wrong. How about between galaxies? Wrong again. The coldest place, according to astronomers using the world’s newest giant telescope, is the Boomerang Nebula, a cloud of gas puffed out by a dying star some 5,000 light-years away. Intergalactic space is admittedly pretty cold, at -455°F (-270°C). But parts of the Boomerang have it beat, clocking in at -457.7°F (-272°C). That’s about  2°F (1.1°C) above absolute zero, the coldest temperature possible according to the laws of physics.

This literally chilling discovery isn’t what’s new here; that occurred back in 1995, when astronomers were trying to figure out how the cloud got its peculiar shape (it actually looks more like a bow tie than a boomerang). They did this by training a submillimeter-wave telescope on the object, which looks for the faint wisps of radiation emitted by matter at super-low temperatures, and found that the Boomerang was even colder than the cosmic microwave background radiation left over from the Big Bang—up until then, the coldest thing known to science.

(MORE: Most Distant Galaxy Found—and Yes, It’s Far, Far Away)

When the ALMA telescope (short for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) came on line last spring, astronomers realized they had a chance to probe more deeply into the secrets of the Boomeraring: the 66-dish array, located in the thin, crisp air of northern Chile’s Atacama Desert, is by far the world’s most powerful of its kind.

What the astronomers found is that the nebula’s bow tie shape is an illusion: the actual cloud surrounding the dying star is roughly spherical. ALMA managed to figure that out by looking for the radiation emitted by vibrating molecules of carbon monoxide that are spread throughout the dust and gas that make up the nebula. The flaps of the tie are created by starlight reflecting off dust grains, but a relatively thick band of dust close in blocks that light from illuminating those grains in all directions.

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“Using ALMA,” said Raghvendra Sahai, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboraty, who led the observations, “we were quite literally and figuratively able to shed new light on the death throes of a Sun-like star.”

Why is the nebula so cold? For the same reason, it seems, that a refrigerator can keep milk from spoiling, or an air conditioner can keep you from doing the same. They work by letting gas expand, which automatically forces it to cool (Albert Einstein patented a similar but simpler technology in 1926, but unlike most of his other ideas, this one didn’t take off). The science is nifty, but sometimes it can come in second to the visuals. And for most of us, what’s really cool (so to speak) about the Boomerang is the ghostly, glowing appearance of this bizarre object in ALMA’s extraordinary new images.

(VIDEO: The Cosmic Discovery That Would Surprise Even Einstein)

23 comments
LukeRobson
LukeRobson

My ex-wife's heart when she took sole custody and half of everything

MaseWehrle
MaseWehrle

No, no.The coldest place ever is in a zombies heart.

ezekielmartin
ezekielmartin

Wait, so a nebula shaped like a bow tie is the coldest place in the universe? Well, that proves it then. Bow ties are cool.

Mariah76857
Mariah76857

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btt1943
btt1943

If the temperature is so near absolute zero, all particles are practically motionless. Where did the eerie light come from? From "moving" electrons?             (boontee)

TG28
TG28

Everyone knows the coldest place in the universe is Washington D.C.

petergc901
petergc901

If the temp gets down to - 273° C, then what? Why cant it go below or how or what makes -273 "feel" colder than -100. How can it be explained/quantified in simple terms?

Likewise, i've often wondered how high can temperatures go: according to above article, its millions of degrees.  Apart from the numerical figure, how can 1000 degrees feel hotter than a million degrees or what does 1 million degrees feel like?. How is that explained/quantified in simple terms?


rotorhead1871
rotorhead1871

you need a physics refresher….....a gas only cools as it expands if it does work, by expanding against a pressure. in the vacuum of space as  a gas expands, it does no work as it is expanding into an absolute vacuum....therefore is will not cool as it expands against said vacuum........you need to come up with another cooling mechanism....

TenaciousJim
TenaciousJim

I've got a couple of ex girlfriends who are colder than that.

italydawg
italydawg

wiki: "The current world record was set in 1999 at 100 picokelvins (pK), or 0.000 000 000 1 of a kelvin, by cooling the nuclear spins in a piece of rhodium metal."

JackArmstrong1
JackArmstrong1

The coldest places in the Universe are the ion traps at NIST.

petergc901
petergc901

Hey guys, thanks for all your inputs. I'm a bit more knowledgeable now.

(I know i got this reply thing wrong like i'm replying to myself. Only way to tell when i hit the Post Comment thing)

allenwoll
allenwoll

@petergc901 -- It is EASY to understand.

In a COLD region, any atoms/molecules/particles present are moving (typically vibrating) only at slow speeds. . When they come to absolute rest, THAT is absolute zero.

In a HOT region, any atoms/molecules/particles are moving (typically vibrating) very fast : They cannot vibrate back and forth at speeds faster than about the speed of light, for then most of the energy involved radiates away. . Speaking of degrees here, I personally think, is misleading -- I will let those more knowledgable speak to THAT ! ! 

teviet
teviet

@petergc901 Adding to Random's comment: How hot or cold something "feels" depends on the amount of heat flow, which can depend on things other than temperature (such as the density and thermal conductivity of the object).  This is why a cold metal object feels colder and a hot metal object feels hotter than wooden object of the same temperature.

Similarly, the upper atmosphere of the Sun is much hotter (millions of degrees) than its surface (thousands of degrees), but contributes almost nothing to the perceived heat and luminosity of the Sun, because it is extremely tenuous.

Temperature always dictates the direction of heat flow (i.e. always from the hotter object to the colder object), but the rate of heat flow is more complicated.

Random_Science_Comments
Random_Science_Comments

@petergc901  Temperature is a measurement of the average kinetic energy of molecules. Some point on any given scale corresponds to the impossible-to-achieve point at which all the molecules are stopped, and have zero kinetic energy. It doesn't go lower because you can't get slower than "not moving". 

Since kinetic energy can increase without practical limit, there is no real upper limit on temperature. How it would "feel" depends on the limits of your nervous system - so there comes a point at which nothing can "feel" hotter or colder because your body will have reached it's sensory limits. 

False_Believer
False_Believer

@rotorhead1871 The gas does work against the gravitational pull of the object as a whole, so cools as it expands. But thank you for not suggesting that God is cooling it:).

nathanielrhamrick
nathanielrhamrick

@rotorhead1871 Ideal gas simplification equations are not precise at low temperatures. Furthermore, you have no reason to assume that such a large quantity of gas in any area of space would be accurately classifiable as ideal.

teviet
teviet

@rotorhead1871 Nope, even if the gas is expanding into a vacuum, it does work (on itself) and cools.

teviet
teviet

@allenwoll @petergc901 Although the speed of particles is limited to the speed of light, their energy has no upper limit.  Since temperature is proportional to the energy per particle, there is no upper limit on temperatures.

Actually, at temperatures above 1e30 degrees or so the structure of space and time as we understand it will break down.  This is about the temperature of the Big Bang.  That doesn't mean that higher temperatures are impossible, just that our current laws of physics will prove inadequate to describe them.

allenwoll
allenwoll

@teviet @allenwoll @petergc901 -- Thank you for you couteous and informative reply. 

Scientists need to compile a more intuitive picture for laymen -- Likely n-ot one in 1,000 has any useful concept of extreme high temperatures. . Rolling out numbers like 1-M degrees is rather silly. . People think of the temperature of a body of particles (gas, liquid or solid), not of a body of particles beyond even a gas -- rather, a plasma.