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March 26, 2007 | by  | in Opinion |
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R.I.P. NGC 2440

On February 6, the Hubble telescope photographed the planetary nebula NGC 2440. This great ball of colour is the bloated cadaver of a star long ago deceased. When alive, NGC 2440 (who is located approximately 4,000 light years from you and I) had been about the size of our own sun. Her biography tells us much about the fate of our own solar system.

NGC 2440 was born many billions of years ago. Her mother’s womb was a molecular cloud; an abnormally dense space several light years across. This womb was then penetrated by something – an explosion, a spiral arm of mature stars, a tidal wave of gas – bringing about an orgasm of gravitational collapse.

The result was a baby star foetus. Over ten billion years, this foetus – a burning hot ball of hydrogen floating in space – fused her hydrogen into helium.

For NGC 2440, this was as simple as breathing. Fusion produced an outward-thrusting counter-balance, preventing her from collapsing under the inward compression of her own gravity. By continually fusing, she kept her body in a state of equilibrium. But, as she moved into adulthood, her store of helium built up and her hydrogen whittled away to nothing. This made her gravity contract, and brought about hot flushes in her complexion.

Our sun (which still has roughly 5 billion years of happy fusing to look forward to) maintains a core temperature of approximately 15 million degrees. But when NGC 2440 ran out of hydrogen, she stopped fusing, sat on her gaseous laurels and hit a fever of 100 million degrees. Suddenly, her helium became confused, fusing into carbon and oxygen and exploding into a red giant the size of Mars’ orbit. Great spouts of gas and space dust erupted from this gigantic, bloated corpse of a star – much like spores from the pustules of a rotting human.

However, according to scientists (who know these things), NGC 2440 did not cease in one great movement; she died in fits and starts, her flesh tearing sporadically over many millions of years.

The tiny white dwarf skeleton of the former star burns at 200,000 degrees. She is surrounded by blue clouds of hydrogen, and red clouds of nitrogen and oxygen. Before our star collapses entirely, she, too, will explode in a great fit of rage; consuming all her young – the earth included – like the vengeful goddess-bitch that she is.

Our oceans will boil and our soil will fry. So, remember, when bowing to the sun for your morning prayers, that our great sky-mother does not respect her children. She will set a mortal end to the life-span of man (that is, if we don’t beat her to it).

But, gosh, isn’t NGC 2440 a pretty corpse?

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Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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