Four planetary nebulae observed through the Chandra X-Ray satellite. (Photo : NASA/CXC/RIT/J.Kastner et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI)
Dying stars can be one of the most violent and captivating phenomena that can be viewed in our heavens. They offer clues as to how planets, black holes, and even elements form, and now a series of astronomers from NASA's Chandra X-Ray satellite observatory have trained their sights on the last moments of some stars in our neighborhood.
Like Us on Facebook
The team of more than two dozen astronomers set out in 2011 to image 21 previously-undiscovered planetary nebulae that were within 5,000 light years of our Sun, a relatively close distance given the vastness of space.
The result is a gallery of unfathomable and enigmatic beauty.
"Planetary nebulae have provided astrophysicists with dying star 'laboratories' for more than a century," says team leader Joel Kastner from Rochester Institute of Technology. "They provide test beds for theories of stellar evolution and give us insight into the origin of heavy elements in the universe and on Earth. Yet we still don't fully understand why they take on such a dazzling variety of shapes."
Planetary nebulae occur when a recently dying star in its red giant phase ejects its outer layers. The glowing molten core then illuminates these ejected layers of the star with intense ultraviolet radiation that ends up ionizing the outer layers into eye-catching spectrals.
By using X-Rays to observe planetary nebulae, the scientists hope to get a look at what goes on underneath the illuminated outer layers.
"With Chandra's exceptional 'X-ray vision,' we can detect the million-degree plasma inside the discarded shells and probe the energies of the stellar winds that shape them," says Kastner.
The team of scientists created this image set by winning seven days observing time with the Chandra X-Ray satellite from 2011 to 2012. The team recently won eight more days observing time, which they will embark on later this year.