The European Southern Observatory (ESO) released a stunning image of a star in its final stages of existence this April. The fading celestial body is located 3300 light-years away in the constellation of Scutum (The Shield).
The photograph, captured by Chile’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), shows a glowing bright green cloud, or planetary nebulae. This cloud is what remains after a star blew out its atmosphere in the last throes of its life. The core of the dying star, visible as a blue-white spark at the center of the gaseous cloud, will begin to cool over the next billion years.
This dying star was first identified in the late 19th century, and similar phenomena had been long identified before this. Naming them planetary nebulae, these early astronomers them had no way of knowing that they were witnessing a star in its last stages of life.
What the VLT captured is an unusually clear and impressive image. ESO also noted that this particular case shows interesting details rarely seen.
“It has the unusual feature of being surrounded by multiple shells that make it resemble a micro-organism seen under a microscope,” ESO explained in a press release.
The organization described the “bubbles” of gas as formed by the gas that once made up the star’s atmosphere. The green color comes from the ionized oxygen.
Our sun, which is 4.6 billion years old, is due to go through the same process in a few billion years as it reaches its final stages of its life.
The Atacama Desert, home of the VLT, is known as one of the best places in the world to see the night sky. With the opening of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in March of 2013, the Atacama became the center of modern astronomical research. Once operating at its full capacity in late 2013, ALMA will have 100 times more sensitivity and spectral resolution than its predecessors in the millimeter/submillimeter field.