Stars like the sun die not with a bang, but a whimper. They slowly bloat into red bags of gas, too large to hold onto themselves. They lose wisps of their outer atmospheres to space, and their cores collapse. Gravity crushes them into white dwarf stars, while their outer shells inflate and form luminous nebulas that can be seen from thousands of light years away.
But for some stars, there’s creation before oblivion. Toward the end of their lives, some stars might make new planets.
Planet-building is a task generally left to young stars, those that are only a few million years old and still surrounded by the gas and dust that gave birth to them. But astronomers using the Very Large Telescope just caught the first glimpse of a hot disc of dust around a very old, dying star.
The disc looks like a glowing ring left by a coffee mug, and capturing it was a major technical feat, involving four different telescopes. At the center of the ring is the main star in this binary system, which is currently a red giant on its way to becoming a white dwarf. The ring around it is dust and gas made of the star’s own remnants. There’s also a smaller, younger companion in this system, about as far from the main star as Mars is from our sun. That star is about the same age and size as the sun.