Nature is ruthless. It gives life and make stars sparkle so brightly in our sky that uncountable poets have dedicated their most beautiful work to them. But unfortunately, all beauty must fade and everything that has a beginning also has an end. Even so the seemingly perpetual stars which eventually have to die too. I've repeatedly written about dying stars, either the ones that go fairly quietly through the formation of a planetary nebula, or the ones that grant us the unforgettable spectacle of a supernova explosion. Today, I'd like to show you a star that's literally exhaling its dying breath.
I know, it's very difficult to see on this sketch and it's all my fault. I had made some modifications to my telescope which had the nasty consequence that I couldn't increase magnification beyond 206x anymore. Unfortunately, to have a good look at this little buddy you should use a lot more. But nevertheless you can still more or less see what I'm talking about: that rather bright, fuzzy little patch near the drawing's centre. This is a so-called protoplanetary nebula, nicknamed "Frosty Leo", and this nickname isn't far-fetched at all as I shall explain.
When a medium-sized star reaches the end of its lifecycle, it runs out of fuel to sustain nuclear fusion and becomes highly unstable. Its interior collapses and the shockwave that this causes literally blows the star's atmosphere into space, where it will form large gaseous shells or "bubbles" around the remains of the star. The contraction of the dying star's core will in turn generate so much heat that it will reignite fusion of helium into heavier elements, such as carbon, oxygen and even iron. The star's radiation continues to blow up the "bubble", which eventually dissipates into space, and heat it up to a point where the gas ions start to emit light as well. This is what we call a "planetary nebula".
In the case of Frosty Leo, however, we're not quite there yet. We're actually witnessing the collapse of the star and the initial expulsion of its atmosphere. Its last breath, as a matter of speaking. At this low magnification it's almost impossible to see, but the star's atmosphere is blown away in two opposite lobes which keep expanding at a rate of a whopping 25km/s. Remember that in order to escape from Earth's gravity a rocket needs an initial velocity of 11,2km/s or 33 times the speed of sound, so imagine how fast the nebula around Frosty Leo is forming!
As I said, the nickname wasn't chosen by chance or after a very successful party its discoverers had to celebrate their findings. No, the nickname derives from the fact that the nebula consists for a large part of... water-ice grains! Plus of course that it resides in Leo. For the time being it's perhaps the only such nebula that we know of so this makes it doubly interesting. Another weird fact is that it lies 10.000 lightyears away from us and an unusual 3.000 lightyears above the galactic plane. Therefore it must have been a very lonely star, condemned to die in complete isolation.
In the next millennia Frosty Leo will keep expanding and eventually the nebula, which currently only reflects the light from the star, will light up, adding another Crystal Ball or Eskimo to our skies. But let's not be impatient. This object is already a great spectacle and much more so from a scientific standpoint.