A new sky-scan has offered a vision of the distant future - when our sun dies.
A new survey using the Chandra X-ray satellite observatory has imaged dying stars near our own solar system.
The spectacular images of planetary nebulae are the death throes of stars like our own sun.
Both the previous and upcoming series of observations are part of the Chandra X-ray Survey of Planetary Nebulae - one of the last stages in the life of a star.
A planetary nebula is a dying star that has cast off its outer layers, after having been a 'red giant'.
Our own sun will undergo this process in a few billion years.
The newly exposed, hot core of the star (which will eventually become a “white dwarf” star) lights up the matter ejected from the star, which is sculpted into bizarre shapes by the forces of the core.
The resulting dazzling objects, bearing names like Cat’s Eye, Lemon Slice and Blue Snowball, have long been studied optical and near-infrared telescopes.
The new X-ray study should help scientists understand the powerful cosmic forces that unravel stars as they die.
“This provides fresh new insights into the last, dying gasps of stars like the Sun. Planetary nebulae have provided astrophysicists with dying star ‘laboratories’ for more than a century,” says Joel Kastner from Rochester Institute of Technology.
“They provide test beds for theories of stellar evolution and give us insight into the origin of heavy elements in the universe and on Earth. Yet we still don’t fully understand why they take on such a dazzling variety of shapes.”
“An X-ray survey of this kind is completely uncharted territory in the planetary nebula world,” Kastner adds. “Astronomers working in this area agreed that we need large quantities of time to look at as many planetary nebulae as possible, specifically with Chandra.”
His team is using X-ray imaging to look “under the hood” of planetary nebulae.
X-rays cut through the illuminated gas and dust, allowing astronomers to investigate the last tens of thousands of years of history of the dying star that threw off its outer sheaths.
“With Chandra’s exceptional ‘X-ray vision,’ we can detect the million-degree plasma inside the discarded shells and probe the energies of the stellar winds that shape them,” Kastner says.