One day our sun will die.
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About 10 billion years from now, our nearest star will run out of its stellar fuel, effectively marking the end of its life in space.
Ok, but then what happens?
According to a new study published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy, researchers may have a new understanding of exactly what will become of the sun after it reaches the end of its life.
Effectively, the study suggests that the star will become what’s known as a planetary nebula, a mass of gas and dust.
“When a star dies it ejects a mass of gas and dust – known as its envelope – into space. The envelope can be as much as half the star’s mass,” astronomer Albert Zijlstra, one of the authors of the new study, said in a statement.
Even though we’ll all be long gone by the time the sun comes to the end of its life, maybe we can take some small comfort in knowing that the sun’s planetary nebula will likely be beautiful to behold.
Planetary nebulas generally are some of the most gorgeous objects we’ve photographed in the universe.
“This reveals the star’s core, which by this point in the star’s life is running out of fuel, eventually turning off […] before finally dying,” Zijlstra said.
“It is only then the hot core makes the ejected envelope shine brightly for around 10,000 years – a brief period in astronomy. This is what makes the planetary nebula visible. Some are so bright that they can be seen from extremely large distances measuring tens of millions of light-years, where the star itself would have been much too faint to see.”
The study used a model to effectively figure out if the sun could create a planetary nebula.
The Cat’s Eye Nebula.
Image: NASA Goddard
Until now, it wasn’t exactly clear if the sun is massive enough to be visible as a planetary nebula, but the new model shows that it likely is, if only barely.
The new study suggests that the sun is actually one of the lowest-mass stars that could produce a planetary nebula.
The new model shows that the stellar remnant will actually heat up three times faster than expected from earlier studies, making it possible for a low-mass star like our sun to form a relatively bright planetary nebula, according to researchers.
The new result will allow scientists to look out into the universe with more accuracy than ever before. Astronomers will now be able to more accurately track stars and learn more about the origins of planetary nebulas out there in the galaxy.
“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.”