What The Sun Will Look Like When It’s Dead, About 5 Billion Years From Now

Astronomers in Chile have just captured the most detailed image of Medusa Nebula ever — and no, it’s not a photo of the woman from Greek mythology with snakes for hair. This Medusa is a colorful and drop-dead-gorgeous cloud of gas that’s an estimated 1,500 light-years away from Earth. But, more importantly than a beautiful picture, the image of the Medusa Nebula released Wednesday by the European Southern Observatory shows a glimpse into the future — of our very own sun.

What astronomers in Chile captured using ESO’s Very Large Telescope is actually a dying star shedding its outer layers into space as it gasps for its final breaths, and it offers a very real glimpse of what the sun will look like in another 5 billion years, as it nears its retirement. After the sun runs out of hydrogen fuel, it will become a red giant and then, millions of years later, will likely end up as a planetary nebula, just like the Medusa Nebula. For stars the size of the sun, this is a very common fate.

So, what exactly is that colorful cloud depicted in the picture? Each of the colors in the cloud represents a different type of gas. The red colors are hydrogen gas, and the green is doubly ionized oxygen. The gases form a crescent shape in the sky, and the serpentine-like wisps of gas spanning the nebula is what earned it the name Medusa. Here's an up-close look at the nebula, captured by ESO's Very Large Telescope:

According to a description by ESO officials, the nebula stretches about four light-years across, and the gas emissions from the nebula extend far beyond what the above image captures. As depicted by the image below, the Medusa Nebula — which is the dot circled in red — is located in the Gemini constellation.

Although the nebula was first discovered in 1955, scientists have long had a hard time observing it because it isn’t very bright, which makes the recent photo all the more significant. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1970s that astronomers realized that Medusa wasn’t the remains of a supernova explosion, but a dying star. According to Space.com, the star’s gaseous dying phase will continue for tens of thousands more years before it finally sputters out, leaving behind a white dwarf — the “cold remnant of the star.”

Thankfully for us, we still have billions and billions of years to wait before our sun reaches the current state of Medusa, let alone its final stage as a white dwarf. Although it will be sad to see our sun go, at least we can capture a glimpse beforehand of just how beautiful it will be when it does.

Images: ESO (3)