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THE COLORFUL LIVES OF STARS

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has unveiled a of variety shapes, structures, and fireworks that accompany the birth and death of stars. Hubble images of newly forming stars reveal blowtorch-like jets of hot gas streaming from deep within the disks around the stars. Possibly shaped into long slender streamers by magnetic fields, these jets are an "exhaust product" of star formation. They travel across space for billions of miles before slamming into material in the star's vicinity. In dramatic images, Hubble has shown the effects of very massive young stars on their surrounding nebulae. The astronomical equivalent of a hurricane, the intense flow of visible and ultraviolet radiation from an exceptionally massive young star eats into surrounding clouds of cold hydrogen gas, laced with dust. This helps trigger a firestorm of star birth in the neighborhood around the star.

Hubble has produced a dazzling array of images of colorful shells of gas blasted into space by dying stars. These intricate structures are "fossil evidence," showing that the final stages of stars' lives are more complex than once thought. An aging star sheds its outer layers of gas through stellar winds. Late in a star's life, these winds become more like a gale and consequently sculpt strikingly complex shapes. When massive stars die, they don't die as quietly as lighter-weight stars. They end their lives with mammoth explosions. The Hubble has been keeping an "eye" on one such nearby explosion, Supernova 1987A. The star's self-destruction was first seen nearly 12 years ago on February 23, 1987 by a ground-based telescope. In July 1997 the Hubble telescope's imaging spectrograph captured the first images of material ejected by the exploding star ramming into an inner ring around the dying object. Shocked by the 40-million-mile-per-hour sledgehammer blow, a 100-billion-mile-wide knot of gas in a piece of the ring has already begun to "light up," as its temperature surges from a few thousand degrees to a million degrees Fahrenheit. By analyzing this glowing ring, astronomers may find clues to the final years of the doomed star's existence.


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