The sun will turn into a spectacular planetary nebula when it dies, claim scientists

Contrary to previous research, scientists have predicted the sun will turn into a planetary nebula – a ring of luminous, interstellar gas and dust – when it dies in around five billion years’ time.

Planetary nebula can be seen from distant galaxies when the majority of stars transition from red giant to white dwarf, but for years scientists believed our sun was too small to create such a spectacle. Indeed, old models suggested anything with a mass less than twice that of the sun would produce a planetary nebula too faint to see.

“The data said you could get bright planetary nebulae from low mass stars like the sun, [but] the models said that was not possible, anything less than about twice the mass of the sun would give a planetary nebula too faint to see,” said Professor Albert Zijlstra of Manchester Univeristy’s School of Physics & Astronomy .

However, after developing a new model that predicts the lifecycle of stars, a team of international astronomers has discovered low mass stars of the size of our sun or larger do in fact produce a visible nebula, albeit slightly fainter ones.

“We found that stars with mass less than 1.1 times the mass of the sun produce fainter nebula, and stars more massive than three solar masses brighter nebulae, said Professor Zijlstra.

“This is a nice result. 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!”

Not that this discovery makes a jot of difference to us Earth-bound humans, as we’ll be long extinct. As explained by Science Alert, the sun is increasing in brightness by about 10% every billion years, which will cause all of the planet’s water to evaporate and put an end to life within a billion years.

Happy Tuesday!

The research is published in Nature Astronomy.

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