At only 3,000 light years away, the Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543) shines brightly in multiple wavelengths. One of the more documented planetary nebulae, the Cat’s Eye once had a star located in its center, but this star has since released its outer layers of gas and plasma and provides us with this extraordinary display of colors. The star no longer exists and will remain as a white dwarf until its stored heat of billions of years lasts no more. Furthermore, it is worth noting that there is still some mystery abound regarding the structure of this planetary nebula. Scientists know a star has died, but believe this star was part of a binary system. The signs are there but this second star has yet to be detected. There are at least 11 concentric rings/shells surrounding the center of this planetary nebula, all separated by 1,500 intervals of mass release. 1,000 years ago, this pattern stopped and has continued to perplex Astronomers since.
Known as planetary nebula, the spectacular Helix Nebula is a remnant of a dead star showing the final stages of its life, 700 light years away from planet Earth. Incorrectly believed to be a planet before technology improved, planetary nebulas are not planets, but once were stars that have exhausted all of their fuel, releasing the shells of gas and plasma once surrounding the star for billions of years of its life. This particular image of the Helix Nebula shows in red, the very high amounts of cosmic dust that surround the white dwarf that is left over from this dead star. This white dwarf will produce intense radiation, driving out the nebula into space in all directions. Eventually, this spectacle will no longer exist as all of the remnants will be further dispersed out into the vastness of space.
NGC 7026. Yes, there are so many objects in the sky that not every one of them has a cute name like, “Seahorse Nebula”. This beautiful feature of the cosmos is a Planetary Nebula and is the result of a low-mass star ending its life that has lasted for billions of years. The subject of stellar evolution is of particular importance to me and has inspired me to write about its complexity, and how we have all benefited from the behavior of stars, particularly high-mass stars. Our vast knowledge of them, especially given the distances is truly remarkable. We have SO many at our disposal just to observe. Every type of star you can imagine is catalogued by the brilliant Astronomers of our past and today. At a distance of 6,000 light years and located in the constellation of Cygnus, NGC 7026 once was a star that has released its outer shells of elements heavier than hydrogen, created over its multi-billion year lifetime through proton fusion. It does not explode into a supernova because it is a low-mass star and will never attempt to fuse iron in its core. Instead, it releases its outer shells of elements, one by one. The most furious this star got was at its Red Giant phase, which is the beginning of the end for low-mass stars. Lastly, and perhaps even more amazing is that at the center of this nebula lies a solid dense core of carbon, known as a white dwarf. This core is very dense and is the result of billions of years of stored heat and will glow, but very faintly compared to a living star. Even though it is dead, the white dwarf will still emit intense radiation and stellar winds that drive the outer shells out into space. Eventually, the white dwarf will cool down and will turn into a brown dwarf. It is not brown however and in fact, it has been recently discovered that a cooled white dwarf most likely turns into crystallized carbon. What’s special about that? That’s basically your cosmic version of a diamond in space. A diamond that is 10 billion trillion trillion carats. We have evidence of this actually in the 2,500-mile diameter burned out star called, Lucy. A diamond that large is incomprehensible. Stars are truly amazing and continue to teach us new things about them.