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When It Dies, Our Sun Will Probably Look Like This Glowing, Gassy Cloud

Astronomers have debated the problem of planetary nebulae, in regards to our own sun, for a quarter-decade.

by Samantha Cole
May 7 2018, 4:00pm

Abell 39, a particularly symmetrical example of a planetary nebula / Credit: T.A.Rector (NRAO/AUI/NSF and NOAO/AURA/NSF) and B.A.Wolpa (NOAO/AURA/NSF) 

Someday, billions of years from now, the Sun will die. When it does, it’ll take the solar system out with it, demolishing the planets its nurtured for eons with an “envelope” of dust and gas that will reveal the star’s core.

But what will it look like after it’s thrown this cosmic death-fit?

A study by an international team of astronomers, published Monday in Nature, predicts that the Sun will become a cloud of luminous gas and dust known as a “planetary nebula,” posing a potential answer to a 25-year debate around what will become of our Sun in its afterlife.

We already know that other, more massive stars produce a visible planetary nebula after they die, but our own Sun’s mass was always thought to be too low to produce this glowing gassy cloud. The researchers, including Krzysztof Gesicki , Marcelo M. Miller Bertolami, and Albert Zijlstra, developed a new data model that challenges this notion.

After the envelope ejects, they found, what's left of the Sun will heat up three times faster than previously thought—making the nebula brighter and more visible. This opens up the possibility for our relatively small star to leave behind a visible nebula, too.

Not that any of us will be left in this solar system to witness the Sun’s bright, gassy end. By then, our distant descendants will hopefully watch the show from their new, off-planet home.