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Cosmic hand hitting a wall nebula
Courtesy of NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory

Watch a ‘cosmic hand hitting a wall’ in eerie images from outer space

NASA has shared imagery of the ‘Hand of God’ nebula as it collides with a wall of gas at almost 9 million miles per hour

Across the course of 14 years, NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory has observed the “Hand of God”, a distant nebula that resembles a giant, cosmic hand reaching through space toward a wall of red gas. Now, the space agency has shared imagery that measures its journey through space for the first time.

Also known as the “Cosmic Hand Hitting a Wall” or MSH 15-52 (slightly less catchy), the structure is actually the remnants of an exploded star, comprising debris from the supernova, the blast wave from the explosion, and an X-ray-emitting nebula blown apart by a pulsar. The various compnents came together to resemble fingers and a palm as they expanded into space.

Light from the explosion, meanwhile, is estimated to have reached Earth around 1,700 years ago, when the Mayan empire was flourishing (though that actually makes the remnant it formed one of the younger examples of its kind in the Milky Way).

The new study tracks how quickly the “hand” is moving as it makes impact with the wall of surrounding gas (RCW 89), and how it changes as it expands outward. Specifically, the research uses data from 2004 and 2008, and a combined image from observations made in late 2017 and early 2018, comparing these three “epochs” to visualise the nebula’s motion.

As it turns out, particles near one of the fingertips are moving at nearly nine million miles per hour, with other sections of the debris exceeding 11 million miles per hour.

If you thought those speeds are fast though, they actually represent a deceleration as the hand hits the cloud of gas. Researchers estimate that it would have had to travel an average of 30 million miles per hour to reach the point where we observe it today.

While it looks pretty impressive and/or creepy, the “Cosmic Hand” is actually one of many space structures that resemble objects down on Earth. Earlier this year, for example, the Hubble Space Telescope released a new image of the “Necklace Nebula”, located 15,000 light-years away and described as “a diamond necklace of cosmic proportions”.

Learn more about the “Cosmic Hand Hitting A Wall” by watching an explainer from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory below.