The Gemini South telescope has acquired a new image of glowing nebula IC 2220. Nicknamed the Toby Jug Nebula, this object got its name because it looks like an old English jug. But funny drinking games do not take place here.
The center star is a dying red giant with five times the mass of the Sun. In its death throes, the star has flung its outer layers into space, creating nearly symmetrical loops of gas and dust. But why the twin loops? Astronomers believe there is a companion star that helped channel its outburst. However, the companion may have been shredded as the main star expanded.
The red giant goes by the name of HR3126, and the clue to its tattered (former) companion lies in an extremely compact disk of material surrounding HR3126. The material produced by the destruction of this star may have triggered the formation of the surrounding planetary nebula.
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A billowing pair of nearly symmetrical loops of dust and gas mark the death throes of an ancient red giant star, captured by the Gemini South telescope. Image credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA
A planetary nebula is a region of cosmic gas and dust formed from the shed outer layers of a dying star. Despite their name, planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. The term was probably first coined in the 1780s by astronomer William Herschel, who noticed their apparently round, planet-like shape when observing with early telescopes.
IC2220 is located about 1,200 light-years away in the region of the Carina constellation. This is a special type of planetary nebula, called a reflection nebula, that forms when a star’s light is scattered or reflected by a neighboring cloud of dust.
As stars like HR3126 near the end of their lives, they expand into red giants. These types of stars have an average mass that is more than 80% the mass of the Sun, but less than eight times their mass. The dying star will continue to eject gas, while at the same time the star’s remaining core contracts and temporarily begins to emit energy again. This energy causes the ejected gas to ionize, causing the atoms and molecules in the gas to become charged and begin to emit light.
Astronomers say that this end-of-life phase of red giant stars is relatively brief and the celestial structures that form around them are rare, making the Toby Jug Nebula an excellent case study in stellar evolution.
Sunset over Gemini South, atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Photo credit: twins
In about five billion years, when our sun has exhausted its supply of hydrogen, it too will become a red giant and eventually a planetary nebula. We can only hope that in the very distant future some other far-flung civilization will view the living remains of our sun and solar system through their telescopes.