The Fine Ring Nebula


Fine Ring NebulaThis is the Fine Ring Nebula, an unusual planetary nebula. Planetary nebulae form after some dying stars that have expanded into a red giant phase eject a shell of gas as they evolve into the next phase of their stellar evolution, white dwarfs. Most planetary nebulae are either spherical or elliptical in shape, or bipolar (featuring two symmetric lobes of material), but the Fine Ring Nebula looks like an almost perfectly circular ring. Astronomers believe that this unusually shaped planetary nebula was formed from a binary system. The interaction between the primary star and its orbiting companion shapes the ejected material.

The stellar object at the center of the Fine Ring Nebula does appear to be a binary system, orbiting with a period of 2.9 days. Observations suggest that the binary pair is almost perfectly face-on from our vantage point, implying that the planetary nebula’s structure is aligned in the same way. Our point of view looks down on the torus (doughnut shape) of ejected material, leading to the strikingly circular ring shape in the image.

Image Credit: ESO

A Dwarf Flasher


White Dwarf ResurrectionPay no attention to the bright star in the center of the picture. The really interesting stellar object in the frame is that blob of red near the bottom. It’s a small white dwarf undergoing a helium flash.

Normally, the white dwarf stage is the end of the life cycle of a low-mass star, but in some rare cases, a star reignites in a helium flash and expands to its previous red giant state. When this happens, huge amounts of gas and dust are ejected before the star shrinks to become a white dwarf again.

A helium flash is a dramatic and short-lived series of events, and this star—Sakurai’s Object, named for the Japanese amateur astronomer who discovered it in 1996—has allowed astronomers a rare opportunity to study a helium flash as it occurred.

Image Credit: ESO

Mira


Seeing into the Heart of Mira A and its PartnerMain sequence stars such as the Sun wind up as red giants. Studying red giant stars tells astronomers about the future of the Sun (in a few billion years). It also tells us about how previous generations of stars spread the elements needed for life across the Universe. One of the most famous red giants in the sky is called Mira A, part of the binary system Mira about 400 light-years from Earth.

Mira A is an old star, already spewing out the products of its life’s work into space for recycling. Mira B, Mira A’s companion, orbits A at twice the distance from the Sun to Neptune.

Mira A is known to have a slow stellar wind which gently moulds the surrounding material. Mira B is a hot, dense white dwarf with a fierce and fast stellar wind. Recent observations at millimeter wavelengths show how the interaction of the stellar winds from the two stars have created a complex nebula. The bubble at the centre is created by Mira B’s energetic wind inside Mira A’s more relaxed outflow. The heart-shaped bubble, formed some time in the last 400 years or so, is a relatively young object in astronomical terms.

Image Credit: ESO / S. Ramstedt (Uppsala University, Sweden) & W. Vlemmings (Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden)