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The Sciences

27. Dying Star Leaves Trail Like a Comet

By Tim FolgerDecember 21, 2007 6:00 AM
mira.jpg
Image courtesy of NASA/JPL CALTECH | NULL

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The star Mira (Latin for “astonishing”), located in the constellation Cetus, has captivated astronomers since its discovery in 1596 by German astronomer David Fabricius. Over a period of weeks, Fabricius watched the star brighten, then fade from view completely. But it wasn’t until last summer that astronomers learned just how astonishing Mira really is. In August, a team of astronomers reported that Mira has a 13-light-year-long tail of glowing stardust, something never seen in any other star. The tail glows brightly in the ultraviolet but produces no light in the visible spectrum, which is why it escaped detection for centuries.

The astronomers studying it say Mira was once an ordinary star before ballooning into a red giant 400 times the diameter of the sun. Some cataclysmic event in Mira’s past, perhaps the explosion of a nearby star, sent it rocketing through space at 80 miles per second. Now, like all red giants, Mira is violently ejecting its outer layers, which form its brilliant tail.

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