Purple space 'lightning' spews from stellar corpse, creating cosmic shock waves (photo, video)

A streak of purple "lightning" sprawls across the cosmos in a gorgeous new image from NASA.

Light and energy twist and turn in an explosive relationship between a stellar corpse known as a white dwarf and a variable red giant star called R Aquarii (R Aqr) orbiting each other out in space. NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope captured the energetic objects in a stellar new image that looks like a fiery volcanic cloud with a giant, purple streak of lightning piercing through. 

The image shows the pair orbiting each other as an outburst of energy shoots out from the white dwarf, a superdense remnant of a star like our sun that has run out of fuel.

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R Aquarii, a red dwarf star, and a white dwarf interact and create explosions and shockwaves.

R Aquarii, a red giant star, and a white dwarf interact and create explosions and shockwaves.  (Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI, Palomar Observatory, DSS; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA; H-Alpha: LCO/IMACS/MMTF)

As the white dwarf and highly variable red giant orbit one another, the white dwarf pulls material from the red giant onto its own surface. 

Eventually, when enough of this material accumulates on the white dwarf, it triggers an explosion that emits energy into space. Astronomers have witnessed this type of event before and have found evidence for such explosions in older data as well.

In the new imagery, Hubble has captured the red and blue structures while data from Chandra shows up as the purple "lightning." This "lightning" is actually the jet of energy beaming from the white dwarf and interacting with surrounding material. When the jet hits the material around it, it creates shock waves, according to NASA.

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Chelsea Gohd
Senior Writer

Chelsea “Foxanne” Gohd joined Space.com in 2018 and is now a Senior Writer, writing about everything from climate change to planetary science and human spaceflight in both articles and on-camera in videos. With a degree in Public Health and biological sciences, Chelsea has written and worked for institutions including the American Museum of Natural History, Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine and Live Science. When not writing, editing or filming something space-y, Chelsea "Foxanne" Gohd is writing music and performing as Foxanne, even launching a song to space in 2021 with Inspiration4. You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd and @foxannemusic.