Rings in the Haloes of Planetary Nebulae
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The end-point of the evolution of solar-type stars is essentially determined by the onset of a strong stellar wind, which, in a few hundred thousand years completely removes the star’s gaseous envelope, thereby removing the fuel that has previously maintained the thermonuclear energy source in its interior. This phenomenon occur during a (second) phase in which the star becomes a red giant, the so-called the Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) stage. In the last million years of the AGB, the red giant is dynamically unstable and pulsates with typical periods of few hundred days: a prototypical star in this phase is Mira in Cetus. The mechanical energy of the pulsations pushes large amounts of material far away enough from the core of the star for it to cool down and condense into dust. This newly formed dust is further accelerated out of the gravitational bounds of the star by the pressure of the radiation coming from the hot stellar remnant. Gas, which is coupled to dust by collisions, also leaves the star in this process.

In the last hundred thousand years of the AGB, this mass loss process is so strong that the star is completely surrounded by a thick, expanding dust shell that makes it very difficult to observe what is going on inside it. One way to recover valuable information about this critical phase of stellar evolution is to study the progeny of AGB stars, i.e. planetary nebulae (PNe). These are nothing but the ejected AGB envelopes, heated by the radiation of the hot stellar core, and therefore emitting at the specific wavelengths (emission-lines) typical of the gas that they are composed of.

PNe are fantastic laboratories in which to study a variety of physical phenomena, for example, in the past many aspects of atomic and molecular physics have been addressed by studying PNe. More recently, PNe have become laboratories for investigating the (hydro)dynamical formation of shock waves produced by collisions between stellar winds, with the consequent formation of thin gaseous shells, and bipolar flows or jets which closely resemble those observed in other type of stars or in the nuclei of active galaxies. Now we know that if we understand the formation of the complex and spectacular shapes displayed by PNe, a lot can also be understood about the very late AGB evolution.

An observational highlight in the investigation of the shapes of PNe came from the HST images of the Cat’s Eye, which revealed the presence of a series of shells in the inner regions of its halo. They appeared to be produced by mass ejected from the star in a series of pulses at about 1500 years intervals during the last 20,000 years of the AGB evolution. Each shell contains about one hundredth of the mass of the Sun, i.e. approximately the mass of all the planets in the Solar System combined. When projected in the sky, these shells appear as “rings” (or sometimes “arcs”) composing a sort of “bull’s-eye” pattern.

Discovery of these rings came as a surprise, as mass-loss modulation on a timescale of 1000 years was not predicted by theory (compare with the 100 times longer timescale of the recurrence of thermal pulses). First, it was thought that rings were a rare phenomenon, but recent observations taken mainly with the Wide Field Camera of the Isaac Newton Telescope, have instead shown that these structures are likely the rule rather than the exception. They are thus of general relevance to understanding the large mass loss increase that characterises the end of the evolution of a star like the Sun.

Rings in PNe
Images of rings recently detected in PNe. Left: [OIII] images. Right: the same images processed to enhance the rings. [ JPEG | TIFF ]

Several mechanisms have been proposed for the formation of these rings. They include binary interaction, magnetic activity cycles, or stellar pulsations caused by instabilities in the hydrogen burning shell inside the AGB envelope. Another possibility is that gas is ejected smoothly from the star, and rings are created later on due to formation of hydrodynamical waves in the outflowing material that are caused by a complex coupling between gas and dust. In any case, it is clear that any AGB mass loss theory should now confront the evidence that these rings are frequently found in PNe, and thus contain important information relating to the very late evolution of a large fraction of stars in the Universe.

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Last modified: 13 December 2010