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Hubble photographs unique red rectangle

Astronomers believe the star is part of a close binary system, which may explain the unique shape of the surrounding gas.

By Brooks Hays
The red-tinged hydrogen gas streaming out from the star HD 44179 forms an X and rectangle around the binary system. Photo by NASA/ESA/Hubble
The red-tinged hydrogen gas streaming out from the star HD 44179 forms an X and rectangle around the binary system. Photo by NASA/ESA/Hubble

WASHINGTON, April 11 (UPI) -- A new image snapped by the Hubble Space Telescope shows how star HD 44179 got its nickname.

The star known as the Red Rectangle lies 2,300 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Monoceros, or the Unicorn. When photographed from Earth and space, HD 44179 looks to be surrounded by a faint red rectangle marked by an X-shaped structure of glowing gas.

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Astronomers say the star is similar to our sun, but older and nearing its death -- beginning to leak gas into interstellar space. The lost stellar material is what forms the X and rectangle. Astronomers believe the star is part of a close binary system, which may explain the unique shape of the surrounding gas.

The gas and dust coalescing around the Red Rectangle is currently classified as a proto-planetary nebula, but is on its way to becoming a planetary nebula.

"Once the expulsion of mass is complete a very hot white dwarf star will remain and its brilliant ultraviolet radiation will cause the surrounding gas to glow," NASA scientists explained in a news release.

The latest image -- captured using the High Resolution Channel of the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys -- is the sharpest yet.

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