The Cat’s Eye, catalogued NGC 6543, is a beautiful example of a planetary nebula, formed when the star at the center ran out of nuclear fuel and collapsed to form a white dwarf, throwing off its outer atmosphere in a spectacular display. New research indicates heavy isotopes once thought to require supernovae blasts could be cooked up instead by lower-mass suns at the end of their lives. Image: ESA, NASA, HEIC and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Carl Sagan once famously said “we are all stardust,” pointing out that all the heavier elements making up everything we see, including humans, were cooked up during the death throes of stars that seeded the galaxy with the raw materials for building new stars, solar systems and, at least on Earth, life.
Some of that star stuff is blown into space when relatively low-mass stars like the Sun blow off their outer layers near the end of their lives, creating compact white dwarfs and spectacular planetary nebulae. Heavier elements are born in supernova blasts.
But the origins of star dust are more complicated than that. Meteorites, for example, contain traces of heavy isotopes of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen that feature an extra neutron ...