A dying star’s final hurrah

The Butterfly Nebula, located just under 4,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Scorpius, is a striking example of a planetary nebula, the end stage in the evolution of a small- to medium-sized star. The butterfly’s diaphanous “wings” consist of gas and dust that have been expelled from the dying star and illuminated from within by the star’s remaining core. The nebula’s symmetrical, double-lobed shape is a telltale sign that a companion star helped shape the outflowing gases. Both the primary star and its companion are hidden by the shroud of dust in the nebula’s center.

Enlarge / The Butterfly Nebula, positioned slightly below 4,000 light-years from Earth within the constellation Scorpius, is a placing instance of a planetary nebula, the top stage within the evolution of a small- to medium-sized star. The butterfly’s diaphanous “wings” encompass fuel and dirt which have been expelled from the dying star and illuminated from inside by the star’s remaining core. The nebula’s symmetrical, double-lobed form is a telltale signal {that a} companion star helped form the outflowing gases. Each the first star and its companion are hidden by the shroud of mud within the nebula’s middle. (credit score: NASA , ESA , and J. Kastner (RIT))

Billions of years from now, as our Solar approaches the top of its life and helium nuclei start to fuse in its core, it should bloat dramatically and switch into what’s referred to as a purple large star. After swallowing Mercury, Venus, and Earth with hardly a burp, it should develop so giant that it could actually now not maintain onto its outermost layers of fuel and dirt.

In an excellent denouement, it should eject these layers into house to type an attractive veil of sunshine, which can glow like a neon signal for hundreds of years earlier than fading.

The galaxy is studded with hundreds of those jewel-like memorials, referred to as planetary nebulae. They’re the traditional finish stage for stars that vary from half the Solar’s mass as much as eight occasions its mass. (Extra huge stars have a way more violent finish, an explosion known as a supernova.) Planetary nebulae are available a shocking number of shapes, as steered by names just like the Southern Crab, the Cat’s Eye, and the Butterfly. However as stunning as they’re, they’ve additionally been a riddle to astronomers. How does a cosmic butterfly emerge from the seemingly featureless, spherical cocoon of a purple large star?

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