I've already written about this highly unusual planetary nebula in construction two years ago and will repeat most of this post here, to give you some background information on IRAS 09371 + 1212, or in other words "Frosty Leo".
When I made my first observation, I was unfortunately limited to 200x, which is far from sufficient if you want to see some detail in this tiny puff of mostly water crystals. So here's my recent observation with the binoscope and... yes... at 507x details were abundant!
Nature is ruthless. It gives life and make stars sparkle so brightly in
our sky that uncountable poets have dedicated their most beautiful work
to them. But unfortunately, all beauty must fade and everything that has
a beginning also has an end. Even so the seemingly perpetual stars
which eventually have to die too. I've repeatedly written about dying
stars, either the ones that go fairly quietly through the formation of a planetary nebula, or the ones that grant us the unforgettable spectacle of a supernova explosion. Today, I'd like to show you a star that's literally exhaling its dying breath. We're talking about a so-called protoplanetary nebula, nicknamed "Frosty
Leo", and this nickname isn't far-fetched at all as I shall explain.
When a small to medium-sized star reaches the end of its life cycle, it
runs out of fuel to sustain nuclear fusion and becomes highly unstable.
Its interior collapses and the shock wave that this causes literally
blows the star's atmosphere into space, where it will form large gaseous
shells or "bubbles" around the remains of the star. The contraction of
the dying star's core will in turn generate so much heat that it will
reignite fusion of helium into heavier elements, such as carbon, oxygen
and even iron. The star's radiation continues to blow up the "bubble",
which eventually dissipates into space, and heat it up to a point where
the gas ions start to emit light as well. This is what we call a
In the case of Frosty Leo, however, we're not quite there yet. We're
actually witnessing the collapse of the star and the initial expulsion
of its atmosphere. Its last breath, as a matter of speaking. At this low
magnification it's almost impossible to see, but the star's atmosphere
is blown away in two opposite lobes which keep expanding at a rate of a
whopping 25km/s. Remember that in order to escape from Earth's gravity a
rocket needs an initial velocity of 11,2km/s or 33 times the speed of
sound, so imagine how fast the nebula around Frosty Leo is forming!
As I said, the nickname wasn't chosen by chance or after a very
successful party because its discoverers had to celebrate their
findings. No, the nickname derives from the fact that the nebula
consists for a large part of... water-ice grains! Plus of course that it
resides in Leo. For the time being it's perhaps the only such nebula
that we know of, so this makes it doubly interesting. Another weird fact
is that it lies 10,000 light-years away from us and an unusual 3,000
light-years above the galactic plane. Therefore it must have been a very
lonely star, condemned to die in complete isolation.
In the next millennia Frosty Leo will keep expanding and eventually the
nebula, which currently only reflects the light from the star, will
light up, adding another Crystal Ball or Eskimo to our skies. But let's
not be impatient. This object is already a great spectacle and much more
so from a scientific standpoint.