Einstein said that matter cannot be created or destroyed; it can merely be rearranged in space. This is happening now - everywhere around us - on an unimaginable scale.
In this snapshot, the ghostly remains of a dead star gently exhale into the night
In the timeless arrangement of the cosmos, matter is neither created nor destroyed. It simply changes form. From nebulous gas clouds, to pinpoint stars, to grand design spiral galaxies, it is all the same matter and energy that came from the Big Bang.
A simple and brilliant efficiency
Our sun turns matter to energy in a nuclear forge deep inside the star. Simple elements fuse to create more complex ones and release energy in the process. When a star’s forge runs low on fuel, it cannot be replenished. The star tries to keep burning, but inevitably fails, and begins to die.
A dying star is a beautiful disaster. The star’s mass dictates how long this process takes and how violent it will be. Massive stars blast apart in a supernova, while smaller stars undergo a gentler undoing.
Beautiful, elemental, they are the answer to every riddle, and every rhyme. Nothing is wasted; every atom has an exquisite purpose.
As a Sun-sized star dies, it puts on a more subtle show than a massive star going supernova. Slowly, over thousands of years, the star sheds its outer layers into space. Guided by the ghostly hand of the star’s magnetic field and spin, the material moves outward, gradually taking on fantastical forms.
Through early telescopes, the dying breaths of stars looked like small planet disks, and were called ‘planetary nebulae’. Clearer views painted a more interesting picture. A glimpse into the great chain of creation: stars seeding the universe with the complex elements needed to make all of the amazing things we see around us, including planets … and life.
A modern image of a planetary nebula shows incredible detail in the wisps of gas. The colors glow with a code, a unique fingerprint identifying each chemical in the cloud, from primordial hydrogen to more complicated oxygen, carbon and others, all formed inside the star, and now leaching out to the cosmos. Beautiful, elemental, they are the answer to every riddle, and every rhyme. Nothing is wasted; every atom has an exquisite purpose.
We know that without stars, the universe would still be a lifeless soup of hydrogen and helium.
How a star lives dictates how it dies. The forces that act on a star - gravity, magnetism and spin - continue to shape the star even as it is going out. These forces mold planetary nebulae into a zoo of incredible forms, lovely and mystifying. Like postcards from the unknown, telescopic images reveal the full extent of their exotic beauty. Some round and others elongated, each telling a tale from its shining past.
We have always looked to the stars as a way to understand ourselves. Now we know that without stars, the universe would still be a lifeless soup of hydrogen and helium. Through living and dying, stars complete the cycle from simple to complex, making planets and even life possible.
And what of us? Our own most radiant and essential star, the Sun, will eventually exhaust its fuel and slowly begin the recycling process. Weakening energy from the nuclear forge will no longer balance the inward pull of gravity. The Sun’s core will start to collapse as its outer gases slowly expand, engulfing the familiar planets of the solar system one by one until it, too, becomes a planetary nebula and a white dwarf.
Our star, our Earth, our atoms will become seeds of new worlds and new beings. There is no other possibility - the universe is unfolding as it should.
We are all made of stars.