Rare death star caught in act, all wet
By Richard Stenger
(CNN) -- Scientists using a colossal radio telescope spied a dying star during its fleeting transformation into a planetary nebula. The observation, producing a bright blob of glowing gas with a hot stellar core, is the best yet of the elusive phenomenon, according to astronomers.
"This is the first time that anyone has seen a star that is so clearly going through this transformation stage," said Yolanda Gomez of the Institute for Astronomy at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City, Mexico.
When many stars, including those similar to our sun, go into the twilight of their lives, they cast off gas into space and then shrink into white dwarfs.
The gravity-induced collapse heats up the star and pushes out powerful, speeding waves of ultraviolet light, which in turn collide into and heat up the slower-moving debris ejected earlier by the star.
The outer gaseous shell often begins to glow, creating colorful and bizarre shapes known as planetary nebulae, so-called because early astronomers mistook the fuzzy figures for planets.
Astronomically speaking, the process happens quickly. This particular specimen, known as K3-35, entered the planetary nebula phase within the past 17 years, said Gomez and colleagues in the November 15 edition of the scientific journal Nature.
One clue for the age estimate is the presence of a compound never before detected in a planetary nebula.
"We are seeing radio waves emitted by water molecules," Gomez said. "(They) are all destroyed within 100 years of the beginning of this stage, so we are seeing this star during an extremely brief transition period of its life."
K3-35 is located 16,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Vulpecula, which means "small fox." As with many other planetary nebula, the central star is surrounded by a doughnut-shaped ring of material and flanked by twin lobes of outflowing gas. The distance from the stellar core to the lobe tip is more than 200 times that from the sun to Pluto.
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