Guest Blog: The Bucket List Astronomy Class Tour, Planetary Nebulae, and the No-Worries Shelf

Posted by Nicole Kiefert
on Tuesday, August 29, 2017

By Sandy Ackman and Benjamin Blume

A rectangular planetary nebula?!? Why? HD 44179 is a mystery, but we're guessing it's probably magnetic fields. // http://hubblesite.org/images/news/34-planetary-nebulae
While we were staying at the Allen H. Stewart Lions Camp in Casper, Wyoming, we heard from Dr. James’ doppelganger, Dr. Stacy Palen who specializes in planetary nebulae. These are the shells ejected from low-mass dying stars, something the Sun will become in about 5 billion years.

If there’s one thing you can say about Dr. Palen, it’s that she is passionate about her science. She actually startled one of the classmates when she got excited that some students knew answers to some of her questions about the subject. Stars are just big balls of gas, mainly hydrogen, helium, and carbon. Stars like the sun, which are typically no greater than 8 solar masses (our Sun being 1 solar mass), eventually run out of hydrogen, and when they do they begin to die. These stars essentially go….poof…forming a planetary nebulae. Don’t mistake planetary nebulae with nebulas leftover from supernovas. Nebulas from supernovas come from stars that are larger than 8 solar masses, and these stars go BOOM!!!

Inspired by Dr. Palen, who said that once she realized the Sun wasn't going to explode, she could put that fear in a jar and place the jar on her 'no-worries shelf,' Jamz Engelking created our own no-worries shelf. Dr. James would also like to add 'being killed by drop-bears' to that list.

Originally astronomers believed that planetary nebulae “poofed” into spherical shells or bubbles. After all, they appeared to us as circles on Earth, so it seemed only possible that all planetary nebulae were round because a star is round. WRONG!!! A friend of Dr. Palen’s finally convinced the Hubble Space Telescope time allocation committee to let them look at some planetary nebulae and they found that planetary nebulae come in various shapes, sizes, colors, and patterns. They are just truly phenomenal to look at! Now instead of being boring spheres, planetary nebulae have lots of interesting shapes, but they still always had some kind of symmetry to them – spherical, bipolar, or S type symmetry.

When she asked us if we knew why some of these shapes were happening, our immediate answer was magnetic fields. But we were just grasping at straws, and this amused Dr. Palen because in the astronomy world, when astronomers can’t figure out why something is doing something they chalk it up to magnetic fields. What we’ve discovered is that magnetic fields are the answer to the ultimate question of life, universe, and everything, not 42.

One of the many beautiful planetary nebulae that Dr. Palen showed us was the 'Cat's Eye' nebula // http://hubblesite.org/images/news/34-planetary-nebulae
The ability to use the Hubble Space Telescope to view planetary nebulae from different angles gives astronomers the ability to construct 3D images to simulate what they actually look like. So why should we even care about planetary nebulae? Well for starters, our Sun will poof and turn into a planetary nebulae…eventually…we’ve got about another few billion years left so we can hold off on worrying about that for now. In fact there’s a whole lot of jars we can put on our “no-worries shelf,” according to Dr. Palen. So we did.

But because our Sun and stars like our Sun will live for billions of years, and because this phase in their lives is so comparatively short, they deserve to be noticed. They could tell us something about cosmic distances. Also, taking notice of planetary nebulae is pretty much like taking notice of yourself since 90% of the carbon in our body was created in these kinds of stars through their death. And that is one of the coolest connections in the universe.

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