NASA’s GALEX mission has uncovered carbon, oxygen, and other materials in a gently illuminated eighty trillion mile tail behind the star Mira (the “wonderful” star in the constellation Cetus). GALEX is ultra-sensitive to faint ultraviolet light and is the first telescope to ever uncover a feature like this associated with a star.
A 13-light year long tail is not exactly standard issue, and who would have predicted that a star as well studied as Mira would turn out to have a wake that glowed only with ultraviolet light? How energizing it is to reflect that the pace of discovery is only accelerating, capable of blindsiding us at almost every turn.
Mira is at the right of the image above. You can see a bit of the bow shock, the faint inverse “c” to the right of Mira, where stellar wind (the blasting of protons and other particles) collides with interstellar gas and dust. The star’s progress through space has been charted at nearly 300,000 mph. That dates the end of the tail to thirty millennia ago. There should be a good bit of natural history to decipher.