Cosmic Pyrotechnics from a Celestial Belch

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Gemini Observatory Legacy Image

Gemini Observatory image of Kronberger 61, showing the ionized shell of expelled gas resembling a soccer ball

The universe is capable of some pretty spectacular displays, but few things approach the cosmic grandeur of a planetary nebula. The "planetary" part has to do with the formation's shape, which is roughly spherical, like a planet. But these objects are a lot bigger than any planet or even any star. They're enormous clouds of gas — like smoke rings, but bubble-shaped — puffed out by sun-like stars undergoing their death throes. In 5 billion years or so, our own sun may well emit a gorgeous belch of its own, perhaps to be noted by alien astronomers somewhere out in the Milky Way.

Planetary nebulae are old hat to scientists; the 18th century musician turned astronomer William Herschel gave them their name way back in 1785, and some 3,000 have been identified since then. But this new one, named Kronberger 61, is special in a couple of ways.

First, it was discovered as the result of a partnership between amateur and professional astronomers. The amateur (of sorts, though he's hardly a dabbler) is Matthias Kronberger, who works at the CERN particle physics lab in Europe. He's a member of a group that calls itself the Deep Sky Hunters; among other things, they search through sky images looking for intriguing objects. Because he found the new nebula, it now carries his name. The pros, including astronomers at the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile and others working with the Kepler space probe, were in charge of follow-up.

The second thing that makes Kronberger 61 special is that it happens to lie in the patch of sky being studied by the Kepler probe. Kepler's main mission is to find planets orbiting distant stars by watching the starlight dim as a planet passes in front of them. Kepler has already found more than 1,200 possibilities.

But it can also find binary, or double, stars — and that could help scientists figure out the details of how planetary nebulae form and why they come in such different shapes. One theory suggests that double stars are more prone to produce the glowing nebulae than singles. The Milky Way is positively teeming with double-star systems, and if Kepler can find evidence of a binary lurking inside Kronberger 61 or in the one or two other planetary nebulae known to sit in the probe's field of view, that could help cement the theory.

And if not — then the sun still has an excellent chance of going out with an extraordinary light show of its own.