What Will Happen When the Sun Dies?

The team found that in the new models, the sun is almost exactly the lowest mass star that still produces a visible, though faint, planetary nebula.  (Image: via   pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
The team found that in the new models, the sun is almost exactly the lowest mass star that still produces a visible, though faint, planetary nebula. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Scientists agree the sun will die in approximately 5 billion years, but they weren’t sure what would happen next… until now. A team of international astronomers, including Professor Albert Zijlstra, from the School of Physics & Astronomy, predict it will turn into a massive ring of luminous, interstellar gas and dust, known as a planetary nebula.

A planetary nebula marks the end of 90 percent of all stars’ active lives and traces a star’s transition from a red giant to a degenerate white dwarf. But for years, scientists weren’t sure if the sun in our galaxy would follow the same fate: It was thought to have too low a mass to create a visible planetary nebula.

To find out, the team developed a new stellar data-model that predicts the life cycle of stars. The model was used to predict the brightness (or luminosity) of the ejected envelope for stars of different masses and ages.

The research was published in Nature AstronomyProf Zijlstra explains:

The model also solves another problem that has been perplexing astronomers for a quarter of a century. Approximately 25 years ago, astronomers discovered that if you look at planetary nebulae in another galaxy, the brightest ones always have the same brightness.

Abell 39, the 39th entry in a catalog of large nebulae discovered by George Abell in 1966, is a beautiful example of a planetary nebula. It was chosen for study by George Jacoby (WIYN Observatory), Gary Ferland (University of Kentucky), and Kirk Korista (Western Michigan University) because of its beautiful and rare spherical symmetry. This picture was taken at the WIYN Observatory's 3.5-m (138-inch) telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, Tucson, AZ, in 1997 through a blue-green filter that isolates the light emitted by oxygen atoms in the nebula at a wavelength of 500.7 nanometers. The nebula has a diameter of about five light-years, and the thickness of the spherical shell is about a third of a light-year. The nebula itself is roughly 7,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Hercules. Credit: T.A.Rector (NRAO/AUI/NSF and NOAO/AURA/NSF) and B.A.Wolpa (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Abell 39, the 39th entry in a catalog of large nebulae discovered by George Abell in 1966, is a beautiful example of a planetary nebula. It was chosen for study by George Jacoby (WIYN Observatory), Gary Ferland (University of Kentucky), and Kirk Korista (Western Michigan University) because of its beautiful and rare spherical symmetry. This picture was taken at the WIYN Observatory’s 3.5-m (138-inch) telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, Tucson, AZ, in 1997 through a blue-green filter that isolates the light emitted by oxygen atoms in the nebula at a wavelength of 500.7 nanometers. The nebula has a diameter of about five light-years, and the thickness of the spherical shell is about a third of a light-year. The nebula itself is roughly 7,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Hercules. (Image: T.A.Rector (NRAO / AUI / NSF and NOAO / AURA / NSF) and B.A.Wolpa (NOAO / AURA / NSF)

It was found that it was possible to see how far away a galaxy was just from the appearance of its brightest planetary nebulae. In theory, it worked in any of type galaxy. But while the data suggested this was correct, the scientific models claimed otherwise. Prof. Zijlstra adds:

The new models show that after the ejection of the envelope, the stars heat up three times faster than found in older models. This makes it much easier for a low mass star, such as the sun, to form a bright planetary nebula.

The team found that in the new models, the sun is almost exactly the lowest mass star that still produces a visible, though faint, planetary nebula. Stars even a few per cent smaller do not, Professor Zijlstra added:

Provided by: University of Manchester  [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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