The planetary nebula NGC 2440, captured in dazzling detail in this new Hubble Space Telescope image, was once a star much like our Sun.
But after billions of years of steady output, this solar twin ran out of hydrogen fuel, and started blowing itself up episodically in a spectacular series of pulse-like blasts. Any life that might have evolved on planets orbiting the star would have been vaporized as it died, leaving behind only its white dwarf shell, with its searing temperatures of 360,000 degrees Fahrenheit (200,000 degrees Celsius), and a surrounding cloud of kicked up dust and gas.
Fortunately, NGC 2440 is located over 4,000 light years away from Earth, so its self-destruct sequence poses no threat to life here at home.
That said, the glistening display of stellar blood and guts offers an eerie premonition of what will happen when our own star is ready to kick the bucket. While the Sun seems like a solid friend to Earth and its inhabitants right now, what with its steady stream of life-nourishing solar radiation and illuminating sunshine, that setup is only temporary, and our planet is pretty much on loan.
About five billion years from now, the Sun intends to swell into a red giant star, swallow the Earth along with anything unlucky enough to still be on it, and then explode itself into a nebulaic coffin like NGC 2440.
Hopefully, our descendants will have struck out for other star systems long before the Sun starts snacking on the inner planets. Perhaps they'll even catch a nifty view of their home star's death throes from a safe vantagepoint in space. But in the meantime, Hubble's fantastic new image of NGC 2440 provides a poignant glimpse of our solar system's future.
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