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Long-lasting fireworks spotted by space telescopes

H. Olofsson / ESA / NASA

The bright star U Camelopardalis, or U Cam for short, is surrounded by a tenuous shell of gas in an image from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The flash of an earthly fireworks display can be over in an instant — sometimes literally — but the show is longer lasting in outer space. The dying red-giant star known as U Camelopardalis, 1,500 light-years away in a region of sky near the north celestial pole, is in the midst of a fireworks blast that lasts for centuries.

By human standards, U Cam's blast may seem like an eternity. The star's shining shell of glowing gas, documented in this picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, has been traveling outward for something like 700 years, as Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait points out. When the outward explosion began, Europe was suffering through famines and plagues, and the mainstream view was that our planet was the center of the universe.

But in the astronomical scheme of things, centuries are mere blinks of the eye — and it won't be long before U Cam gives up the ghost.

U Cam is a carbon-rich star that's running low on its fusion fuel and becoming unstable. Every few thousand years, it coughs away stellar material as a thin, faintly glowing shell. The star itself is actually much smaller than it looks. The brightness dial has been turned way up to emphasize the delicate structure of the shell, and that means U Cam's glare is turned up as well.

Plait notes that our own sun is destined to run low on fuel billions of years from now, turn into a red giant and start blasting away shells of material — just as U Cam is doing now. "What we're seeing here is a glimpse of our own future," he writes. That's certainly a sobering thought, but 7 billion years or so should give us plenty of time to look around for other places where we can hang out.

NASA / JPL-Caltech

The Flame Nebula flares in this color-coded view from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. The famous Horsehead Nebula can be seenas a small bump poking out from the edge of the cloud, below the bright star of the flame.

Who knows? One of those places might be in the neighborhood of the Flame Nebula. The star-forming nebula is situated about as far away from us as U Cam — but in the direction of the constellation Orion, near the celestial equator. NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer captured this view of the vast cloud and dust, lit up by a bright star that's 20 times as massive as our sun.

This view also shows two other familiar nebulae. The knot of light just beneath the brightest part of the image is a nebula known as NGC 2023. The Horsehead Nebula is poking out from the greenish-colored cloud, just to the right of NGC 2023 and down a bit. In visible light, the Horsehead is a dark cloud silhouetted by glowing gas, but in infrared light, we see the glow of the cloud instead.

This image is color-coded to reflect different infrared wavelengths. Hot stars are seen in shades of blue and bluish green, while relatively cool objects, such as the dust of the nebulae, show up in shades of green and red. The color combination makes for a fireworks display well-suited for the week of the Fourth of July.

Where in the Cosmos
The picture of the Flame Nebula served as this week's puzzle picture for the "Where in the Cosmos" contest on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. It only took a few minutes for Matt Gunn to identify the picture as the Flame Nebula, and Michael Vacirca and David Frambo were right behind him. All three are eligible to receive 3-D glasses, wrapped up in a 3-D picture of yours truly.

To put those red-blue glasses to use, check out Cosmic Log's 3-D archive, as well as the 3-D images available through the Planetary Society blog. And to get in position for next week's "Where in the Cosmos" contest, be sure to hit the "like" button for the Cosmic Log Facebook page.

Weekly Space Hangout
Cosmic sights were among the topics addressed during this week's Space Hangout, orchestrated by Universe Today's Fraser Cain, but we also addressed developments closer to home, such as the discovery of a new boson at the Large Hadron Collider and the untimely death of former astronaut Alan Poindexter. Check out the YouTube video for the whole Hangout.

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.