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.
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.
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.