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When Stars Throw Tantrums

Wolf-Rayet stars are definitely the drama queens of the cosmos. While most stars are content with a quiet life, burning their hydrogen and minding their own business, Wolf-Rayet stars just have to be the center of attention. First, they burn through their fuel faster than a teenager with a credit card, producing intense stellar winds. Then, as if that wasn't enough, they throw off their outer layers in a spectacular display, like a diva tossing off a fur coat on stage. And the finale? They go out with a bang in a supernova explosion. Deep down perhaps they are angry about only having a few hundred thousand years to live when all their brothers and sisters live for billions.

Today's post features a Wolf-Rayet star WR136 and the glowing nebula it produced around itself NGC6888.

The Star's Early Outbursts

Before WR 136 became the star at the centre of this display, it went through some serious drama in its younger days. Around 120,000–240,000 years ago, in its red supergiant phase, WR 136 made a bit of a mess of the neighbourhood. It discarded a whopping 5 solar masses of gaseous material, creating a shell that's been expanding at a leisurely pace of 80 km/s.

Mid-Life Glow-up

Fast forward a few millennia, and this same star, now matured (or so we thought), blasted out some stellar winds at a mind-boggling speed of 1,700 km/s. These winds quickly caught up with the earlier discarded gas material, giving it a good old cosmic nudge and shaping it into an enormous crescent shell. WR136 was not happy with just shaping the gasses, it then decided to light them up by pounding them with ultraviolet rays. That old shell it discarded years ago is now lighting up like a neon sign in the universe.

Spotting the Space Croissant

For any amateur astronomers that fancy a peek at the universe's showiest pastry, you'll need a telescope and a clear night in the summer. You'll find it on the belly of Cygnus, the swan. NGC6888 is not a naked eye target, but with some modest magnification, it can be seen faintly and is about 1/4 the size of the moon.

The image you see here was captured using the Midfield Rig at the Bent Nail Observatory in the heart of Guelph's very light polluted downtown. It was comprised of 52 x 5 minute red, green and blue exposures to get the colours of the stars, and 66 x 10 minute narrowband exposures to get the gasses.

WR136 and it's NGC6888 shell are the universe's way of reminding us that even our clumsiest moments can be things of beauty in the big picture. From shedding their outer layers in their youth to giving themselves a radiant glow in their prime, Wolf-Rayet stars are just like some of my favourite people – a little messy and endlessly entertaining. WR136 is definitely among some of the galaxy's top entertainers.


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