The life cycle of our Sun began roughly 4.6 billion years ago. In roughly 4.5 to 5.5 billion years, when it depletes its supply of hydrogen and helium, it will enter into its Red Giant Branch (RGB) phase, where it will expand to several times its current size and maybe even consume Earth! And then, when it has reached the end of its life-cycle, it is believed that it will blow off its outer layers and become a white dwarf.
Until recently, astronomers were not certain how this would take place and whether or not our Sun would end up as a planetary nebula (as most other stars in our Universe do). But thanks to a new study by an international team of astronomers, it is now understood that our Sun will end its life-cycle by turning into a massive ring of luminous interstellar gas and dust – known as a planetary nebula.
Their study, titled “The mysterious age invariance of the cut-off the Planetary Nebula Luminosity Function“, was recently published in the scientific journal Nature. The study was led by Krzysztof Gesicki, an astrophysicist from Nicolaus Copernicus University, Poland; and included Albert Zijlstra and M Miller Bertolami – a professor from the University of Manchester and an astronomer the Instituto de Astrofísica de La Plata (IALP), Argentina, respectively.
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Roughly 90% of all stars end up as a planetary nebula, which traces the transition they go through between being a red giant and a white dwarf. However, scientists were previously unsure if our Sun would follow this same path, as it was thought to not be massive enough to create a visible planetary nebula. To determine if this would be the case, the team developed a new stellar, data-model that predicts the lifecycle of stars.
This model – which they refer to as the Planetary Nebula Luminosity Function (PNLF) -was used to predict the brightness of the ejected envelope for stars of different masses and ages. What they found was that our Sun was just massive enough to end up as a faint nebula. As Prof. Zijlstra explained in a Manchester University press release:
“When a star dies it ejects a mass of gas and dust – known as its envelope – into space. The envelope can be as much as half the star’s mass. This reveals the star’s core, which by this point in the star’s life is running out of fuel, eventually turning off and before finally dying. It is only then the hot core makes the ejected envelope shine brightly for around 10,000 years – a brief period in astronomy. This is what makes the planetary nebula visible. Some are so bright that they can be seen from extremely large distances measuring tens of millions of light years, where the star itself would have been much too faint to see.”
This model also addressed an enduring mystery in astronomy, which is why the brightest nebulae in distant galaxies all appear to have the same luminosity. Roughly 25 years ago, astronomers began to observe this, and found that they could gauge the distance to other galaxies (in theory) by examining their brightest planetary nebulae. However, the model created by Gesicki and his colleagues contradicted this theory.
In short, the luminosity of a planetary nebula does not come down to the mass of the star creating it, as was previously assumed. “Old, low mass stars should make much fainter planetary nebulae than young, more massive stars,” said Prof. Zijlstra. “This has become a source of conflict for the past for 25 years. The data said you could get bright planetary nebulae from low mass stars like the Sun, the models said that was not possible, anything less than about twice the mass of the sun would give a planetary nebula too faint to see.”
Essentially, the new models demonstrated that after a star ejects its envelope, it will heat up three times faster than what older models indicated – which makes it much easier for low mass stars to form a bright planetary nebula. The new models also indicated that the Sun is almost exactly at the lower cut off for low mass stars that will still produce a visible, though faint, planetary nebula. Anything smaller, Prof. Zijlstra added, will not produce a nebula:
“We found that stars with mass less than 1.1 times the mass of the sun produce fainter nebula, and stars more massive than 3 solar masses brighter nebulae, but for the rest the predicted brightness is very close to what had been observed. Problem solved, after 25 years!”
In the end, this study and the model the team produced has some truly beneficial implications for astronomers. Not only have they indicated with scientific confidence what will happen to our Sun when it dies (for the first time), they have also provided a powerful diagnostic tool for determining the history of star formation for intermediate-age stars (a few billion years old) in distant galaxies.
It’s also good to know that when our Sun does reach the end of lifespan, billions of years from now, whatever progeny we leave behind will be able to appreciate it – even if they are looking across the vast distances of space.