Clownface Nebula


Hubble Space Telescope image

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Astro Facts
Distance roughly 2800 light years
Size about 0.3 light years
Mass about that of our Sun
Age parent star, billions of years.
nebula, a few tens of thousands of years

This gently expanding shell of gas is the death gasp of a now faint stellar corpse sitting at its center. Middle-weight stars like our own Sun end their lives this way, ejecting a sort of cosmic smoke ring. We need not fear this anytime soon: the Sun has five billion years to go before its nuclear fuels are exhausted and it sheds its outer layers into an expanding cloud.

The Clownface Nebula is one of the brighter examples of a so-called "Planetary Nebula". The only connection which such objects have with planets is that some of them have the appearance of the faint outer planets Uranus? or Neptune through a telescope.

Mid-weight stars like our own Sun end their lives as these objects. As they exhaust their nuclear fuels, the cores shrink and heat, while their outer atmospheres grow enormously and cool. Pulsations begin, and over several thousands of years, the pulsations can drive off half of the mass of the star into a gently expanding shell.

Current Cornell Research

Astronomer Eric Lagadec studies the giant, pulsating stars which will soon end their lives as Planetary Nebulae. His interest is in the production of dust which returns to space some of the nuclear ashes generated during the stars' lives. Without previous generations of stars enriching the Universe with this material, the Earth -- and us -- could not have formed.

 
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