Watching a dying star transform

2:51pm, January 2, 2002

Just before dying, sunlike stars blossom into beauties. They set aglow cocoons of gas that they've previously hurled into space. These shimmering gas bubbles, which come in a rainbow of colors, take on intriguing shapes including teardrops, shells, a cat's eye, doughnuts, and hourglasses.

Astronomers have for the first time caught one of these dying stars at the very beginning of this brief, shining period, when it's known as a planetary nebula.

So named because astronomers a century ago thought their shape resembled that of planets, planetary nebulas have been studied since the 1890s. But never before has a planetary nebula been imaged so soon–only about 15 years–after it formed, reports Yolanda Gomez of the National Autonomous University in Mexico City and her colleagues in the Nov. 15, 2001 Nature.

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