It’s hard in astronomy to know if we really understand what’s happening to a star hundreds or thousands of light-years away that will live for billions of years. The best we can really do is try and create computer models that can replicate what we see. In many ways, our ability to understand the universe is limited by the computational power we can access.
One of the hardest to understand objects in our universe is the planetary nebula. These ghostly relics of former stars come in a myriad of shapes and have highly detailed geometry. Some are simple bubbles, and these make sense as the puffed off atmosphere exhaled in the final breaths of a star like our sun. Other systems, however, present us with crazy boxes, and other weirdnesses that are baffling.
To try and understand what might be happening, researcher Sagiv Shiber of Louisiana State University simulated the final evolution of a red giant star with a lower mass companion.
Most stars in our universe aren’t alone, and stars regularly interact gravitationally. In his models, Shiber considered what would happen if the small companion star had jets. When a star cannibalistically strips material from a neighbor, that in-spirally material it is eating can generate jets of material that point out the star’s poles. By adding this extra bit of physics to his computer software, Shiber was able to replicate the stripping of a star’s atmosphere and visualize amazing geometries reminiscent of what we see. This work still has a ways to go, but it appears to be going in the right direction, and it is a beautiful direction too.