Ghost of a Dying Star Hints at Sun's Future

Southern Owl Nebula
The planetary nebula ESO 378-1, known as the Southern Owl Nebula, is formed of gases released from a dying star. This is the best view yet obtained of the nebula, as observed by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope. It was first discovered within photographs from ESO's 1-meter Schmidt telescope. (Image credit: ESO)

The sun's ultimate destiny will mirror the drama captured in vivid new photos of this ghostly bubble — the glowing remnant of a slowly dying star.

A collapsing star released this shell of glowing gases, known as the Southern Owl Nebula, which has grown to 4 light-years across. The phenomenon happens to stars up to eight times the size of the sun as they age: any bigger, and the collapse will trigger a supernova explosion instead of this outpouring of gases. Scientists used a telescope with the European Southern Observe the nebula and created a video tour of the ghostly cosmic object.

This type of nebula lasts for a short time compared with the star's overall lifetime, only existing for a few tens of thousands of years before its gases disperse. "The lifetime of a planetary nebula as a fraction of a star's life is about the same as the life of a soap bubble compared to the age of the child who blows it," European Southern Observatory officials said in a statement.

Planetary nebula ESO 378-1 is located within the constellation Hydra (circled in red). It can be seen with moderate-size telescopes. (Image credit: ESO/IAU and Sky & Telescope)

Over time, a star at the center of this soon-to-be nebula swelled up into an enormous red giant. When it got too large and burned through its fuel, it collapsed, ejecting the outer layers of the star as a gas and retaining a small, ionizing stellar core at the gas cloud's heart. Such a process creates what's called a planetary nebula — given that name because one of the first of the nebulas discovered looked like the planet Uranus.

Radiation from the stellar core lights up the shell of gas in ghostly color, and even when the gas disperses, the stellar core will be left as a tiny, bright and dense white dwarf star. Researchers think there are around 10,000 planetary nebulas adrift in the Milky Way right now, but only around 1,500 have been detected.

The sky around the planetary nebula ESO 378-1, the Southern Owl Nebula. The nebula is the blue disk at the picture's center. The picture was created from images in the Digitized Sky Survey 2. (Image credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin)


Because of its size, the sun itself will likely follow this pattern and form a planetary nebula in around 5 billion years, after swallowing up planets as it expands and becomes a red giant.

Such nebulas act as a way for heavy elements like carbon and nitrogen, created in large stars' hearts, to be returned to the interstellar medium. These materials help to form new stars, planets and eventually life, officials said in the statement.

Email Sarah Lewin at or follow her @SarahExplains. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at:

Sarah Lewin
Associate Editor

Sarah Lewin started writing for in June of 2015 as a Staff Writer and became Associate Editor in 2019 . Her work has been featured by Scientific American, IEEE Spectrum, Quanta Magazine, Wired, The Scientist, Science Friday and WGBH's Inside NOVA. Sarah has an MA from NYU's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program and an AB in mathematics from Brown University. When not writing, reading or thinking about space, Sarah enjoys musical theatre and mathematical papercraft. She is currently Assistant News Editor at Scientific American. You can follow her on Twitter @SarahExplains.