L2 Puppis is a dying star that once resembled our sun and it is showing us the stellar inferno that lies in store for our planet.
Five billion years from now, our sun will die. After running out of hydrogen fuel, it will start burning heavier and heavier elements in its fusion core, causing its body to bloat, shedding huge quantities of material into space via violent stellar winds. During this time, our star will expand around 100 times bigger than it is now, becoming what is known as a “red giant.” This dramatic expansion will engulf Mercury and Venus, the two closest planets to the sun.
But what is less clear is what will happen to Earth — will our planet go the way of Mercury and Venus and succumb to an ocean of superheated plasma? Or will our planet escape the worst of the sun’s death throes to continue orbiting the tiny white dwarf star that will be left behind?
“We already know that our sun will be bigger and brighter [when entering the red giant phase], so that it will probably destroy any form of life on our planet,” said Leen Decin, of the KU Leuven Institute of Astronomy, in a statement. “But will the Earth’s rocky core survive the red giant phase and continue orbiting the white dwarf?”
With the help of the most powerful radio observatory on the planet, astronomers could soon have a clue by looking at a nearby star system that resembles how our solar system will look when the sun begins to die.
L2 Puppis is an evolved star located over 200 light-years from Earth. Though this seems far away, it’s pretty much on our cosmic doorstep and well within the resolving power of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile. Through precise measurements of the star, astronomers have deduced its mass and age, realizing that it is (or was) a sun-like star that’s now 10 billion years old. It’s also a prime example of a planetary nebula in the making.
Like our sun five billion years in the future, L2 Puppis is ripping itself apart, blasting huge quantities of gas into space. This process creates a massive glowing cloud and this particular planetary nebula resembles a beautiful cosmic butterfly (pictured above by the ESO’s Very Large Telescope).