Glimpsing over 500 light years into deep space we have been able to witness in unprecedented detail the end of a star, and in particular one that is just like our own Sun.
This blurry image might not seem like much but what you’re looking at is a glimpse of our future, some five billion years to be precise.
This is π1 Gruis, a cool red giant that is reaching the end of its life. It is around the same mass as our own Sun but 350 times larger and several thousand times brighter.
Having burned up all its hydrogen millions of years ago π1 Gruis would initially have shrunk considerably while increasing its temperature to over 100 million degrees.
This next phase of its life sees it fusing helium into heavier atoms such as carbon and oxygen. This entire process takes place at almost unimaginable temperatures, causing the star’s outer layers to balloon eventually reaching the lumbering size that it is now.
While we know this happens all across the universe, never before have astronomers had a chance to actually see it with their own eyes.
So what’s next for this star? Unlike stars far larger than it, π1 Gruis will, just like our own, expand further and further until it transforms into a beautiful planetary nebulae.
While it’s impossible to speculate where or indeed what the human race will be up to in five billion years it is somewhat comforting to know that when our solar system does eventually reach the end of its life that this is what will remain.