Unless you’re on the verge of a very important breakthrough, it’s decidedly unlikely you’ll be around to see the Sun die in approximately five billion years.
Earth technically won’t be around to see it, either: Our beloved planet is expected to be vaporized by the expanding star.
But that hasn’t tempered scientists, still curious about what might happen post globe-annihilating explosion.
New research by a team of international astronomers predicts the Sun will turn into a massive ring of luminous, interstellar gas and dust—aka a planetary nebula.
(Fun fact: The term is a misnomer that originated in the 1780s with astronomer William Herschel who, while viewing an emission nebula through his telescope, mistook the glowing shells of ionized gas for planets.)
Scientists long believed our Sun may not follow a similar fate; its mass was thought too low to create a visible planetary nebula. A new data model that predicts the lifecycle of stars, however, tells a different story.
“When a star dies, it ejects a mass of gas and dust—known as its envelope—into space,” explained study co-author Albert Zijlstra, a professor at the University of Manchester.
This, he continued, reveals the star’s core. Which, at this point in its lifecycle, is running out of fuel and inching closer to death.
“It is only then the hot core makes the ejected envelope shine brightly for around 10,000 years—a brief period in astronomy,” Zijlstra said in a statement. “This is what makes the planetary nebula visible.”
The data model, as described by a paper published this week in the journal Nature Astronomy, also answers a 25-year-old cosmic question.
A quarter of a century ago, astronomers discovered that it is possible to determine the distance of a galaxy from the appearance of its brightest planetary nebulae.
And while the data supported these claims, the scientific models did not. New standards suggest that, after the ejection of the envelope, stars heat up three times faster than previously thought, making it easier for a low-mass star like the Sun to form a bright planetary nebula.
In fact, our Sun is almost exactly the lowest-mass star that can still produce a visible, albeit faint, planetary nebula.
“Problem solved, after 25 years!” Zijlstra boasted.
“This is a nice result,” he added. “Not only do we now have a way to measure the presence of stars of ages a few billion years in distant galaxies, which is a range that is remarkably difficult to measure, we even have found out what the sun will do when it dies.”
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