Meet the planetary nebula, one of the universe’s most gorgeous phenomena.
If you’ve ever looked through a telescope, you may have seen one of these before. Through a small telescope, one might look like a little planet—hence the name. But make no mistake, these nebulae have nothing to do with planets, and everything to do with stars.
Then, as the star runs out of helium fuel in its core, it expands into a giant a second time. This is the last time a medium-mass star will expand. It’s also the end of the line for the fuel in its core, since it can’t get hot enough to fuse carbon.
At this point, the star is so big that gravity at the surface is too weak to hold onto its atmosphere, especially in the face of the superwind of radiation pressure from the still-collapsing core.
The result is a planetary nebula…but what exactly is a planetary nebula? What is it made of? Why does it look the way it does?
Astronomers have a pretty solid idea of how stars are born. They begin within the dense, cold dust of an interstellar cloud such as this one. They heat up and get more luminous as they contract, and then drop in luminosity as they continue to contract steadily toward the main sequence.
I’m going to spend at least the next ten or so posts talking about the main-sequence portion of a star’s life cycle. Basically, we’re talking about a star’s adulthood.
You know what, while we’re at it, why don’t I draw up an analogy between a star’s life cycle and that of a human:
When a human is a mere fetus developing within its mother, a star is a protostar.
We say a star has been “born” when it crosses the birth line—basically, satisfies certain expectations for its temperature and luminosity for its specific mass—and becomes visible.
After that, a star steadily approaches adulthood. A “child” star is referred to as a Young Stellar Object (YSO) or a pre-main-sequence star.
Albireo is the distinctive double star in the head of the constellation Cygnus. You can find it yourself if you look for the Summer Triangle amid the dusty trail of the Milky Way across the night sky.
The brighter, orange star of Albireo is a K3-class bright giant. That means it’s just a few thousand Kelvins (Celsius degrees plus 273) cooler than the sun. But it’s also larger—70 times the sun’s radius—and that makes it brighter than you would expect.
The blue star, on the other hand, is a B8-class dwarf. It has only about 3.5 times the sun’s radius, although it’s hotter by about 7422 Kelvins.
Neither star in Albireo is particularly unusual. There are doubtless millions, even billions, of other stars similar to each one. But Albireo certainly offers us the most striking contrast. Bright blue and red stars don’t often appear so close together.
But what exactly gives these stars their distinctive colors?
Well, at the time stamp of about 2000 AD (CE), I think you will. It’s one of the most famous constellations in the night sky.
Well, technically, it’s not a constellation at all.
It’s an asterism—a commonly recognized grouping of stars that isn’t actually official as a constellation. There are tons of asterisms that you no doubt recognize…the Summer Triangle, the Great Square of Pegasus, the Big Dipper.
That’s right. That mess of stars up there that keeps changing for some reason…that’s the oft-recognized Big Dipper, part of the constellation Ursa Major.
You might, if you’ve ever seen the sun through a telescope before. What you’re seeing is the photosphere, the layer of the sun whose light reaches Earth. This is the only layer you’ll ever see, without the aid of a solar eclipse.
Wait a second…what do I mean, layers? I mean, I know what a layer is, but what kind of layers does the sun have?
When I was little, I remember hearing the ice cream truck all the time. Just the sound of the opening notes of “Pop Goes the Weasel” were enough to propel me to the door, where I’d beg my parents to let me go out.
Of course, I didn’t always make it out front in time. But one day, my dad found a way to solve that problem—by actually getting in the car and chasing the ice cream truck.
I remember us driving around the neighborhood, following that white truck around. A few times, it slowed and stopped, but when we stopped too, it kept going again. It took a while for the driver to realize we were following him!
Eventually, we caught it, and had a good laugh over it. But the moral of the story is…have you ever noticed that you can tell if something is moving toward you or away from you, just by if it’s getting louder or quieter?