From the December 2013 issue

View the beauty of stellar death

A star similar to the Sun will end its life as a planetary nebula surrounding a white dwarf.
By | Published: December 30, 2013 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
NGC 6781
NGC 6781 lies about 3,000 light-years away in the constellation Aquila the Eagle.
In the February article, “New light on our Sun’s fate,” astrophysicist Jason Kalirai explains how stars like the Sun lose mass through their evolution. Such a star pulsates during various life stages, shedding material as it does so. Near the end of its life, it also blows off a substantial amount of its outer layers, which amounts to anywhere from 30 to 80 percent of the star’s original mass. Radiation from the star’s leftover dense core — now called a white dwarf — causes the shed material to glow. The result: a beautiful planetary nebula.

Astronomers know of about 3,000 of these stellar end-states in the Milky Way Galaxy. The gallery below shows 10 of the most striking planetary nebulae.