NASA’s plane-with-a-hole-in-it has been busy making infrared astronomy observations, and just captured a quiet, sad sight — the feeble last pulsations of a dying star. Astronomers say the images paint the most complete picture yet of how stellar material is recycled and reborn.

The pixelated image is a composite of three infrared views of the planetary nebula Minkowski 2-9. (Planetary nebulae are so named because astronomers used to think they looked like planets.) Material is flowing out of a star similar to our sun.

Material moving at high speeds around the dying star shapes these emanations into an hourglass form. These lobes are of interest to astronomers because they can illuminate the way stellar material flows into space. The remnants of former stars feed galactic evolution, and understanding how the material flows around could further scientists’ understanding of the larger evolutionary processes.

SOFIA took these observations last summer, and astronomers crunched the data for several months. The jet-mounted telescope flies in the stratosphere, above 99 percent of Earth’s water vapor, so it can observe infrared radiation better than any ground-based telescope. You can read more about SOFIA here.

Door Open in Flight

[via Science Daily]