Learning About Planetary Nebulae With X-Rays | Out Of This World Weekly

The Orbiting Chandra X-Ray Observatory has focused in on some spectacular images of dying stars recently.  These dying Red Giant stars are pushing off their outer gaseous layers as they die, slowly turning into White Dwarf Stars.  These are known as Planetary Nebula because of the beautiful gaseous nebula formations that exist in the region where planets may have once existed.  The aim of this project headed by the Rochester Institute of Technology is to better understand how these stars die and why these Planetary Nebula look the way that they do.  Ultimately, this will help us understand the death of certain types of main sequence stars and how they affect their local environment. 

This study plans on looking  at 59 of the 120 “nearby” Planetary Nebula within 5,000 light years.  These beautiful images are caused by the remnant star shooting x-rays into the cast off gases and this gives the gases enough energy to give off different colors and energies that we are able to detect.  It has been shown that many of the studied Planetary Nebula are in fact binary stars and this may have a great deal to do with the non-spherical shapes that are formed.  More information is needed to determine exactly how an exploding Red Giant affects it’s partner binary star but it seems that many partner stars do survive the explosion to some degree. 


The explosions of the Red Giant stars cause large and well defined shockwaves of cast off gases.  Some of these shockwaves of stellar wind come in intervals, so that several independent shockwaves can be seen flowing out from the dying star.  This would imply that as stars die, they go through several stages with each stage having separate characteristics.  These are different stages of star death where differing levels of Hydrogen and Helium fusion cause shifts in luminosity and temperature.   The more that we learn about dying stars, the better we can predict the death of our own Sun which is expected to turn into a Red Giant in about 5 billion years as it’s supply of Hydrogen runs out.  A Planetary Nebula will form as the Sun slowly uses up the last of it’s fuel within the next billion years, yet the Planetary Nebula may only exist for a total of about 25,000 years as the gases expand away from the dying star very quickly. 

It is quite likely that everything on Earth was part of a beautiful Planetary Nebula in the past and will again be part of another Planetary Nebula again in the future.  Understanding these Planetary Nebula gives us a direct understanding of where we were and where we are going in the future.  Knowing the patterns that form gives us better foresight into how heavy elements, t hat are created from the billions of years of fusion inside stars , are distributed into nearby regions of space.  Watching the patterns of shockwaves may yield better understanding of how these shockwaves affect other Nebula, possibly causing the formation of new star systems.  Not only do these pictures help create a greater understanding of our past, future, and the universe that we live in but they are some of the most beautiful pictures of the night sky that we have ever taken and that alone might be worth it.


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