Life and death among the stars

The Hubble Space Telescope turns 25 this year, and it has transformed our view of the cosmos, giving us unique insights into the astonishing universe in which we live. I thought it would be interesting to look at the life and death of stars in the context of Hubble’s 25th anniversary.

The pretty pictures we’re most familiar with from Hubble are a treasure trove of information for astronomers.

Hubble has undergone several refit missions while in space, improving its optics. Here’s an example of just how much our view of the stars has increased over the past quarter of a century.

As it is, even with the grainy imaging, this is an astonishing photograph of the aftermath of a supernova that took place 168,000 light years away. To put it in context, “we” (Homo sapiens) were working with crude stone axes somewhere around the horn of Africa, yet to venture out into Europe and Asia, when this star exploded, shining with the radiance of a hundred million suns!

Several hominid species went extinct while the light from this explosion rushed through the void of space to get to us, and just a few decades ago, it finally arrived, revealing the tumultuous death of a star.

Supernova 1987s with improved optics and image processing

Supernova 1987a with improved optics and image processing

Hubble had another look with its upgraded image processing and we got a glimpse of the aftermath of this explosion in stunning detail.

All is not what it seems. Imagine an hour glass. If this star was at the center of the hour glass, then the two, large, faint rings you can see would be either end of the hourglass. Only these rings aren’t the result of the supernova itself, NASA thinks these are “smoke rings” blown off by a blue supergiant some 20,000 thousand years earlier.

While these faint rings are are racing outward at 100,000 mph, the thick inner ring is part of the actual supernova explosion and is racing out at almost ten million miles an hour! The inner ring will overtake the outer ring at some point in the future.

At the heart of the supernova, the stellar remnants have probably collapsed into a neutron star or possibly even a black hole. But the death of one star leads to the birth of others as new chemical elements are formed and flung into space to become the nebulas that will eventually collapse to form another generation of stars and planets.

Hubble has given us a glimpse into how our own solar system formed.

Ignore the blue stars in the foreground of this picture and look at the star cluster of roughly three thousand reddish stars in the heart of the nebula.

Our sun emerged from a stellar nursery just like this, roughly 4.8 billion years ago. These stars are only one or two million years old. They’re babies. The hydrogen they’re comprised of is still to undergo fusion and allow them to ignite as a true star. They formed out of the brilliant nebula visible around them like a cocoon. As they radiate, they’ll send more shockwaves into this gas cloud and cause even more stars to form.

Perhaps one day life will arise around these stars just as it did around our sun, certainly, all the raw materials are there. The only other ingredient needed is time, and the universe has plenty of that as well.

Thank you Hubble.

Thank you NASA.

You have enriched our world with the beauty of the heavens.

If you’re interested in astronomy, be sure to enter into the Cosmos Magazine competition to win a Dobsonian telescope.

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