The Ghosts of Stars

This past week at Kitt Peak, we observed so-called planetary nebulae. These are the expanding shells of dust and gas, left over when the cores of old stars collapse. In a very real way, they are the ghosts or corpses of stars. Their material is expanding into the interstellar medium where it will be recycled into new matter. It’s a chilling look at the most likely fate for our own sun.


This nebula pictured is known informally as the Soap Bubble Nebula and was discovered in 2008. This image was taken with the Mayall 4-meter on Kitt Peak using the same system we were using for observations. You can find more information about the Nebula and the observations at the NOAO Image Gallery.

Although this object looks very ethereal and fragile, it’s actually larger than our entire solar system and consists of material hurling away from the stellar core at the center. Also, while this particular planetary nebula is beautiful and round, many are more irregular, their shapes probably influenced by nearby stars and the original star’s magnetic fields and rotation. Planetary nebulae get their names because enough of them are circular that early observers thought they resembled faint, ghostly planets in the telescope.

Planetary nebulae make me think of a beautiful, haunting song by the steampunk band Abney Park called “Beautiful Decline.” The song describes how the works of man eventually get reclaimed and recycled by nature. Of course, nature itself is not static and even stars are not immortal. Yet, even in decline, there is beauty and the promise of new generations of stars. The material will become new planets and even new life.

On the subject of things steampunk and scientific, there will be a special post mid-week as part of the Favorite Heroines Blog Hop. I’ll be discussing one of my favorite kickass heroines from the novel Lightning Wolves. I’ll also be giving away an ebook copy of the novel.

favorite heroines

After you’ve visited my post, be sure to visit the other stops on the hop where bloggers will introduce you to awesome ladies and find out why they’re the best of the best. There will be a giveaway at each stop!

Soap Bubble Nebula Image Credit: T. A. Rector/University of Alaska Anchorage, H. Schweiker/WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF


6 comments on “The Ghosts of Stars

  1. therailbaron says:

    Thank you for the astronomical science lesson. Never stopped to learn about nebulae. You have delivered it to my cyber doorstep. Fascinating. I will be checking out the blog hop as well.

    • My pleasure. They’re fascinating things and all over the sky. Finding them is a little like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Hope you enjoy the blog hop post as well when it goes live.

  2. Gary Davis says:

    Great Soap Bubble picture. I am thinking the heroine wants to pop it with her arrow.

    • Thanks! Yes, Heidi Schweiker and Travis Rector get some pretty amazing photos from the 4-meter. I hadn’t thought about popping the soap bubble, but now I can’t unsee that image. Fun!

  3. This was a really great image, and some keen thoughts to go with. Thanks for sharing.

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