Home > Astronomy, Astrophysics, General Astronomy, Nebulae, Stars > How Stellar Death Can Lead To Twin Celestial Jets

How Stellar Death Can Lead To Twin Celestial Jets


Credit: NASA/ESA & Valentin Bujarrabal

Credit: NASA/ESA & Valentin Bujarrabal

Astronomers know that while large stars can end their lives as violently cataclysmic supernovae, smaller stars end up as planetary nebulae – colourful, glowing clouds of dust and gas. In recent decades these nebulae, once thought to be mostly spherical, have been observed to often emit powerful, bipolar jets of gas and dust. But how do spherical stars evolve to produce highly aspherical planetary nebulae?

In a theoretical paper published this week in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, a University of Rochester professor and his undergraduate student conclude that only “strongly interacting” binary stars – or a star and a massive planet – can feasibly give rise to these powerful jets.

When these smaller stars run out of hydrogen to burn they begin to expand and become Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) stars. This phase in a star’s life lasts at most 100,000 years. At some point some of these AGB stars, which represent the distended last spherical stage in the lives of low mass stars, become “pre-planetary” nebula, which are aspherical.

“What happens to change these spherical AGB stars into non-spherical nebulae, with two jets shooting out in opposite directions?” asks Eric Blackman, professor of physics and astronomy at Rochester. “We have been trying to come up with a better understanding of what happens at this stage.”

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