X-ray: NASA/CXC/IAA-CSIC/N.Ruiz et al, Optical: NASA/STScI

The death of a Sun-like star as seen by the Chandra and Hubble space telescopes (click to enlarge).X-ray: NASA/CXC/IAA-CSIC/N.Ruiz et al, Optical: NASA/STScI

Although they may shine for many billions of years, stars like our sun don't last forever and when it's time for them to fizzle away into the night they most certainly don't go gently -- but the result can be quite beautiful.

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The image above, a composite of optical data from Hubble and x-ray observations from NASA's Chandra observatory, shows the brilliant structure of planetary nebula NGC 2392 -- a.k.a. the "Eskimo nebula."

Named for their supposed resemblance to planetary disks in early telescopes, planetary nebulae are created when stars up to about 8 times the mass of our sun run out of fuel during the final stages of their natural lives. Powerful gravitational convulsions within a failing star blast its outermost layers into space, and when the outwardly-expanding shells of material are then impacted by the star’s radiation they become ionized, causing them to glow.

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The comet-shaped structures surrounding NGC 2392 are created by faster wind and radiation from the central star interacting with cooler shells of dust and gas that have already been ejected.

While not achieving the dramatic level of true supernova remnants, planetary nebulae like NGC 2392 are nonetheless fascinating targets for observation, not only for their unique beauty but also for the insight they can provide as to the eventual end of our own home star, the sun.