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💫Planetary Nebula NGC 3918

The end of a sun-like star's life was once thought to be simple: the star gracefully casting off a shell of glowing gas and then settling into a long retirement as a burned-out white dwarf. Now, a dazzling collection of detailed views released today by several teams of astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope reveals surprisingly intricate glowing patterns spun into space by aging stars: pinwheels, lawn sprinkler style jets, elegant goblet shapes, and even some that look like a rocket engine's exhaust. These eerie fireworks offer a preview of the final stage of our own Sun's life," says Bruce Balick of the University of Washington in Seattle. More than simply a stellar "light-show", these outbursts provide a way for heavier elements — predominantly carbon — cooked in the star's core, to be ejected into interstellar space as raw material for successive generations of stars, planets and, potentially, life. The astronomers say the incandescent sculptures are forcing a re-thinking of stellar evolution. In particular, the patterns may be woven by an aging star's interaction with unseen companions: planets, brown dwarfs, or smaller stars

Howard Bond (Space Telescope Science Institute), Robin Ciardullo (Pennsylvania State University) and NASA

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