Dying star's final, fleeting moments of life revealed in planetary nebula

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NGC 6210 is a planetary nebula formed from the death of the star inside it. This image captures the star in the very final stages before its afterlife as a white dwarf, previewing the fate of our Sun.

The term "planetary nebula" is really a huge misnomer, because they have nothing to do with planets or even planet formation. They simply happened to look like big gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn when early astronomers first discovered them, and the inaccurate name stuck. Planetary nebulas are actually formed from the gas and dust belched out by stars as they deplete their hydrogen fuel and reach the end of their lives.

This particular image is the most detailed yet of a planetary nebula, particularly the interior where the star is entering its death throes. The dying star has ejected materials in all different directions, which gives the outer nebula its weird, misshapen appearance.


The bright light at the center of the photo is the newly formed white dwarf. It's a tiny object - only about the size of Earth - but very dense, very bright, and very hot. No one quite knows how long white dwarfs last. At the very least, they should keep on chugging along for trillions of years, making their lifetimes at least a hundred times the current age of the universe, and it's probable their actual lifespans are far, far greater than that.

NGC 6210 is located about 6,500 light-years away. This view from the Hubble Telescope is one alien astronomers will be able to get of our Sun in about five billion years, when it runs out of hydrogen and enters its own death spiral to become a white dwarf.