New dying star snapshot offers glimpse of our sun’s future

8 Mar 2016

A new image of a dying star thousands of light years away is like a time machine of sorts, offering us a glimpse of what our sun will look like in billions of years’ time in its final death throes.

There’s no denying, just like every other star out there, our sun’s future will be explosive and cataclysmic for our solar system as its constant nuclear reactions wane and pump irregular energy pulses into space.

As these outer gases of the sun shed, it will eventually reveal the ultra-hot core, creating an ultraviolet light show creating what we now see as a nebula elsewhere in the universe.

In this case, the nebula that the Hubble Space Telescope has its powerful lens focused on is Kohoutek 4-55, named after the Czech astronomer Luboš Kohoutek, famously referenced in an early episode of The Simpsons.

Dying star

Kohoutek 4-55 image via NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), R. Sahai and J. Trauger (Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

According to the European Space Agency (ESA) – which jointly operates the space telescope along with NASA – the nebula is approximately 4,600 light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Cygnus.

This particular image of the dying star using the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) is a composite of three images, each of which was taken at a specific wavelength to isolate the light coming from particular atoms of gas.

The swirls of gas visible surrounding the nebula is a very good indication, the ESA says, of how our own sun will look in 5bn years’ time when, once it’s shed all of its layers, it will be transformed into a small white dwarf.

By this time, the Earth will be nothing but a burnt shell completely devoid of any life. It’s probably a good thing we won’t be around to see it.

Dying star illustration via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic