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New Ideas About How Stars Die

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New Ideas About How Stars Die

Claire Traina, Science and Tech Editor

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A planetary nebula is formed when an expanding ring of gas around an aging star. Radiation from the star’s core sets the gas shell aglow and creates the clouds seen in the images above and below. Astronomers had previously thought that a star’s mass indicated what type of nebula it would produce, larger stars would create brighter nebula and smaller stars, like the sun, would create fainter nebula.

This idea did not match some astronomical observations. For example, the bright planetary nebulae in old elliptical galaxies, which were thought to only consist of lower mass stars, are just as luminous as nebulae in younger galaxies with larger stars. Based on a new theory of stellar evolution after smaller stars shed their outer envelopes their cores heat up faster than before the envelope was shed.

NASA, ESA, and C. Robert O’Del
This new image shows the dramatic shape and colour of the Ring Nebula, otherwise known as Messier 57. From Earth’s perspective, the nebula looks like a simple elliptical shape with a shaggy boundary. However, new observations combining existing ground-based data with new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope data show that the nebula is shaped like a distorted doughnut. This doughnut has a rugby-ball-shaped region of lower-density material slotted into in its central “gap”, stretching towards and away from us.

This allows the star’s core to push more energetic radiation into its nebula, which causes the nebula to expand and a brighter nebula. Simulations showed stars which ranged from 1.1 to 3 times the mass of our sun which produce nebulae with a similar brightness. This could explain why 7 billion-year old stars are just as, and sometimes more, luminous than the stars from a galaxy with 1 billion-year old stars.

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New Ideas About How Stars Die