The Red Square nebula ranks among the most symmetrical objects ever seen in space. But according to astronomer James Lloyd of Cornell University, its square shape may be an accident of perspective. He and his colleague Peter Tuthill of the University of Sydney believe the star, located about 5,000 light-years away in the Milky Way, is spraying dust out in two cones that make an X when seen from the side. How the dust is concentrated into dual cones is still a mystery, but the astronomers think a double star may lie at the nebula’s center. Bands of dust that accentuate the square shape are the residue of periodic “belches” of star dust.
Whatever the reason for the nebula’s angularity, its shape won’t last long—the dying stars that produce such space dust last for just a few thousand years, a mere flicker in the life of a star. “We knew it was cool as soon as we turned the telescope on it,” Lloyd says. “We expected dust, but not laid out with this spectacular symmetry.”