A Stunning Photograph shows Massive Gas Rings encircling an Old Red Star

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Huge rings of gas surround the big red star V Hydrae, indicating its ultimate metamorphosis into a much smaller and bluer star, according to new photographs. Although it appears to be a creature seen through a microscope rather than a telescope, this circular object known as NGC 2022 is not an alga or a tiny, blobby jellyfish. Instead, it is a vast orb of gas in space, cast off by an ageing star. The star is visible in the orb’s centre, shining through the gases it formerly held onto for most of its stellar life.

“It’s clearly changing,” says Raghvendra Sahai, an astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Such ringlike features have never been seen previously in any object of this kind.”

Observations of the three concentric rings, all of which were expelled from the star in the previous 800 years, could help astronomers comprehend how big stars shed mass near the end of their lives and seed the cosmos with planet- and life-building ingredients.

V Hydrae is an asymptotic giant branch star, born almost twice as big as the sun and located approximately 1,300 light-years from Earth. It originally fused hydrogen in its center, just like the sun.

Joel Kastner

V Hydrae is an asymptotic giant branch star, born almost twice as big as the sun and located approximately 1,300 light-years from Earth. It originally fused hydrogen in its center, just like the sun. But it’s now a cool, dazzling, puffy star that alternately burns hydrogen and helium in shells surrounding a carbon-oxygen core. Such stars emit a great deal of material into space.

“The procedures that cause this are not well known,” adds Sahai, who has been studying V Hydrae since the 1980s. To identify the three rings of gas, his team employed the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array of radio telescopes in Chile, better known as ALMA. Beyond them lie three additional rings, which are fainter and seen only partially, Sahai and colleagues report in a paper.

The outermost full ring is currently around 260 billion kilometers from the star, or 1,740 times the distance between Earth and the sun – more than 40 times Pluto’s distance from Earth. Astronomers calculate that the three complete rings were cast off around 270, 485, and 780 years ago by measuring the speed at which they are travelling outward and their current distances from the star.

A new image captures enormous gas rings encircling an aging red star

Another star is assumed to orbit the primary one in an elliptical orbit every few hundred years. According to the team, when the companion dives in, it may cause the huge star to hurl more material into space.

According to Joel Kastner, an astronomer at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York who was not involved in the work, the new image is dramatic and rare, and it highlights how a companion star amplifies a huge star’s loss of mass. “Mass loss is critical since it is how life’s ingredients are spread from stars into the universe.”

Stars like V Hydrae created the majority of the nitrogen in Earth’s atmosphere as well as a large portion of our planet’s carbon, which serves as the foundation for all terrestrial life. V Hydrae’s atmosphere contains so many carbon compounds that it is categorized as a carbon star. It’s also one of the reddest stars known because those compounds as well as dust particles absorb its blue and violet light.

Sahai anticipates the star to continue ejecting material, but he adds, “it’s anyone’s guess how many additional rings will be generated.” When the star loses its whole atmosphere, which will most likely happen in many thousands of years, it will expose its hot core, whose ultraviolet radiation will set the cast-off material aglow, forming a spectacular bubble of gas known as a planetary nebula.

When the nebula fades, the majestic red star will be replaced by a little blue star — a white dwarf — a little larger than Earth, as well as myriad life-giving components floating through the Milky Way.

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