Will We Look Like This in 5 Billion Years?

In another amazingly gorgeous image, Hubble has captured a unique planetary nebula nested inside an open star cluster. Both the cluster (NGC 2818A) and the nebula (NGC 2818) reside over 10,000 light-years away, in the southern constellation Pyxis (the Compass). This spectacular structure contains the outer layers of a sun-like star that were sent off into interstellar space during the star’s final stages of life. These glowing gaseous shrouds were shed by the star after it ran out of fuel to sustain the nuclear reactions in its core. Our own sun will undergo a similar process, but not for another 5 billion years or so. But what a beautiful way to go!

More about this image:

The image was taken in November 2008 with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. NGC 2818 is one of very few planetary nebulae in our galaxy located within an open cluster. The colors in the image represent a range of emissions coming from the clouds of the nebula: red represents nitrogen, green represents hydrogen, and blue represents oxygen.

Open clusters, in general, are loosely bound and they disperse over hundreds of millions of years. Stars that form planetary nebulae typically live for billions of years. Hence, it is rare that an open cluster survives long enough for one of its members to form a planetary nebula. This open cluster is particularly ancient, estimated to be nearly one billion years old.

Planetary nebulae can have extremely varied structures. NGC 2818 has a complex shape that is difficult to interpret. However, because of its location within the cluster, astronomers have access to information about the nebula, such as its age and distance, that might not otherwise be known.

Planetary nebulae fade away gradually over tens of thousands of years. The hot, remnant stellar core of NGC 2818 will eventually cool off for billions of years as a white dwarf.

Source: HubbleSite

15 Replies to “Will We Look Like This in 5 Billion Years?”

  1. Wow, this is a really nice HST image, and especially as one of my favourite deep-sky southern objects.
    a few minor comments though…
    – This PNe (planetary nebula) association with the cluster has yet to be absolutely confirmed to be associated with the cluster. The cluster’s distance is though to be about 3.2 kpc, as said in the Hubble site. The PNe is most references say 2.1 kpc. As nebulae or notoriously difficult to judge distance, this will be hard to assume.
    – The was discovered by the southern observer, James Dunlop on the 26th May 1826, and catalogued later as DUN 564. Dunlop saw it only as a cluster with a nebula. This was only one of four PNe found by him.

  2. Such a beautiful image.

    Such a shame that such a beautiful thing was once destruction…
    Hopefully there was no life nearby…

    I can’t wait till the newer satellites go up that will give us much sharper images of such things.

    Hopefully humans will escape such destruction in the future, i would hate for this planet to be the end of us..

  3. If this is a stellar remnant, why does it have same “pillars of creation” formations that appear in what are said to be star-forming nebulae?

  4. It’s a shame, but the Sun probably isn’t heavy enough to make something so pretty. It’ll blow away its guts into space, but not enough quick enough for a planetary nebula to form.

    If it does, against the odds, then it’s not for another 7.7 billion years.

  5. If I’m looking at this correctly, there are at least two neighbouring bodies caught up in the solar wind caused by the Planetary nebula. Perhaps we are also looking at what’s install for the outer solar system when the sun goes KA-BOOM.


  6. If I may be “that” guy…it looks like Hubble found the gateway to Heaven! lol. Seriously though, this is an AWESOME shot.

  7. # Bill Davis Says:
    January 15th, 2009 at 10:06 am

    If this is a stellar remnant, why does it have same “pillars of creation” formations that appear in what are said to be star-forming nebulae?

    Hi Bill – The pillars in this image do indeed look somewhat like the famous ‘pillars of creation’ found in star forming regions. In a way, the pillars are formed in a similar manner – due to the action of stellar radiation on these clouds of dust/gas. There are a few differences though…

    Notice in the image above that all of the pillars ‘point in’ towards the centre. This is where the white dwarf star lies that is blasting the surrounding gas with it’s radiation. Slightly denser regions of gas are able to withstand this blasting more, and so pillars form trailing away from the star, much like a comet’s tail trails away from the Sun as they pass. The glowing material is by and large almost all gas – the remnants from the (now white dwarf) star as it puffed off it’s outer layers as it died – so lots of hydrogen, helium and oxygen. Not much dust.

    In star forming regions, huge clouds of dust and gas coalesce into large nebula. Within these large regions, smaller regions will undergo a local gravitational collapse to form stars. Once they ignite, they proceed to blow away surrounding matter with their radiation, shaping and forming the gas and dust surrounding them – often into small pillars. In many cases, large clusters can form at the same time, and the combined effect of all of the stars in the cluster often erodes entire regions of gas and dust away, forming large pillars and walls of gas/ dust in space. Star formation will continue in these regions so long as there is enough gas and dust to allow for a gravitational collapse of small local regions.

  8. This question is totaly without meaning.

    Who knows what will happen to humanity even 1 year from now or tomorrow let alone in 5 billion years.

  9. I wonder if any exoplanets orbiting that star are effecting the shape of the nebula via gravity. Could planets cause the pillars to form (gas collecting in the planet’s gravity well)? As the star looses mass, I’m guessing the planets’ orbits would shift, possibly being affected by the gass clouds, which would also have gravity. That would probably scatter the planets. It would be interesting to see of anyone has done any math models on this.

    Marco: the answer is a black dwarf, but the universe it not old enough for any to have cooled yet.

  10. Dark Gnat,

    Thank you. The follow on questions are:

    What material is a black dwarf made of, or will be made of once the universe ages? Also, I frequently read that the material in a white dwarf is so dense that one tablespoon would weigh more than 100,000 elephants or some such (no word on whether those are metric elephants or not). Would the material remain that dense if removed from the star, or would it ‘puff’ up’ in the absence of the intense gravity of the dwarf?

  11. this is magic! i still hope that someday mankind will spectate a supernova in a distant galaxy and see more details of this great event!

  12. Marco:

    I’m not sure that there is a definative answer. White dwarfs are made of degenerate matter (which I think is superdense plasma). As it cools, it may simply stop radiating light, kinda like a hot coal cooling after a few hours. I’m sure someone else has a much better explanation. 🙂

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