Glorious New Hubble Image Could Offer a Sneak Preview of Our Sun's Demise

The Sun will die in a blaze if beauty.
Although we don't know the exact outcome of this death, it is possible to see how other stars, such as the Sun, have died.

One such object is the focus of a new Hubble Space Telescope image. It is called NGC 2438 and is located approximately 1,370 light years away. This object is also known as a "planetary nebula".

The planetary nebulae are not related to planets. They were named so because they look a lot like planets through early telescopes. They are roughly spherical, which is due to the huge gas clouds that were ejected from a Sun-like star.

Hubble's updated image of NGC2438. (NASA/ESA, K. Knoll/NASA Goddard/NASA Goddard/University of Innsbruck/et. al. ; Gladys Kober/NASA/CUA)

The Sun will soon reach the end of its life span and run out of hydrogen to fuse in its core. At that point, the core will begin to cool down and contract, disrupting the delicate balance between inward gravity and outward radiation and thermal pressure created by core fusion.

This will allow hydrogen to flow in from the area around the core. The hydrogen will then ignite in the shell around it. This will produce a lot of energy and cause the outer layers to explode into a bright, huge object that could reach as far as Mars' orbit.

Its instability will eventually cause an eruption that ejects a large portion of its mass into space around it. The star's stellar core will become a white dwarf and glow brightly from the residual heat.

This is the planetary nubula, where NGC 2438 is currently at. This stage is only temporary and lasts for about 10,000 years. The ejected material continues to expand into space and will eventually be too fragile to be seen. The image has four colors: blue is oxygen, green hydrogen, orange nitrogen, and red sulfur.

A 2012-2013 image of NGC2438 taken with the Schulman Telescope. (Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

NGC 2438's glowing "halo", which surrounds the inner circle of the nebula and is visible in numerous round planetary nebulae, is also fascinating. NGC 2438 was included in a study that found the gas glows when it is stimulated by the star's ionizing radiation.

NGC 2438's material is expanding at an average rate of 37 km (23 miles per second). It will become too thin in a few thousand years, depending on how long it takes. The Sun still has a long way to go. Its transformation into a giant red star will take place in 5 billion years.

If there are any humans around to view it, they will do so from what we hope to be a safe distance.