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Most stars end their lives with a blaze of color — an expanding bubble of gas and dust known as a planetary nebula.
A comet-hunting astronomer, Charles Messier, discovered the first planetary nebula more than 250 years ago. It’s known as M27 — the 27th entry in Messier’s catalog of comet-like objects.
A planetary nebula forms when a star exhausts the nuclear fuel in its core. The core collapses and eventually forms a dense, hot ember called a white dwarf. Radiation from the sizzling-hot core pushes away the star’s outer layers, creating an ever-expanding bubble. The radiation causes the gas to glow like a fluorescent bulb.
As seen from afar, these clouds can look like rings, cat’s eyes, pearl necklaces, or glowing atoms. And M27 resembles a hand weight like you’d use at the gym — hence another of its names: the Dumbbell Nebula.
The Dumbbell has been expanding for thousands of years. And it will remain visible for thousands of years more. Eventually, though, it’ll become so large and thinly spread that it will fade from sight. But its story won’t be done. Millions or billions of years from now, some of the Dumbbell’s gas and dust may be incorporated into new stars and planets — an act of rebirth from the remains of a dead star.
The Dumbbell is in Vulpecula, the fox. The constellation is high overhead as night falls. The nebula is about halfway between Deneb and Altair, the bright stars that mark one side of the Summer Triangle.
Script by Damond Benningfield