Astro-Entomology? Ant-like Space Structure Previews the Death of Our Sun

Astro-Entomology? Ant-like Space Structure Previews the Death of  Our Sun
From the Hubble Space Telescope
This dramatic NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of the planetary nebula Menzel 3 (Mz 3), "the ant nebula", reveals the "ant's" body as a pair of fiery lobes protruding from a dying, Sun-like star. By observing Sun-like stars as they approach their deaths, the pictures of planetary nebulae -- shows that our Sun's fate probably will be more interesting, complex, and striking than astronomers imagined just a few years ago. Though approaching the violence of an explosion, the ejection of gas from the dying star at the center has intriguing symmetrical patterns unlike the chaotic patterns expected from an ordinary explosion. How can a spherical star produce such prominent, non-spherical symmetries in the gas that it ejects? One possibility is that the central star of Mz 3 has a closely orbiting companion that exerts strong gravitational tidal forces, which shape the outflowing gas. For this to work, the orbiting companion star would have to be close to the dying star, about the distance of the Earth from the Sun. At that distance the orbiting companion star wouldn't be far outside the hugely bloated hulk of the dying star. It's even possible that the dying star has consumed its companion, which now orbits inside of it. A second possibility is that, as the dying star spins, its strong magnetic fields are wound up into complex shapes like spaghetti in an eggbeater. Charged winds moving at speeds up to 1000 kilometers /second from the star, much like those in our sun's solar wind but millions of times denser, are able to follow the twisted field lines on their way out into space. These dense winds can be rendered visible by ultraviolet light from the hot central star or from highly supersonic collisions with the ambient gas that excites the material into florescence. No other planetary nebula observed by Hubble resembles Mz 3 very closely.
Image Title: Astro-Entomology? Ant-like Space Structure Previews the Death of Our Sun
based on press release for PHOTO NO.: STScI-PRC0105
Image credit: NASA, ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Acknowledgment: R. Sahai (Jet Propulsion Lab), B. Balick (University of Washington)

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 Last Modified On: Thursday, February 22, 2001