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Sakurai’s Object Reveals the Mortality of the Stars

On the evening of February 20th, 1996, independent astronomer Yukio Sakurai was doing something he’d already proven himself to be exceptionally good at: searching the sky for supernovae. As he zeroed in on V4334, a star in the Sagittarius constellation, he saw something very strange—something that he, and other astronomers, have been following ever since. It’s a dying star. But it’s not dying gently.

The Institute of Physics has produced an exceptional five-minute video on the life cycle of stars. Sakurai’s Object is most likely a small star fluctuating between the red giant and white dwarf stages:

Sakurai’s Object also includes a second unidentified celestial body. We can’t quite tell what it is; it might be a planet, or it might be a star that can’t shine through the dust cloud. But what caught Sakurai’s attention—and catches ours—is the final helium shell flash of the dying star, which has caused it to swell explosively with vaporous chemicals and send them flying outward in all directions.  We’ve never gotten a really good look at the object because of the aforementioned cloud (the headline graphic above is a representational red giant), but it seems to be diffusing into a nebula beyond our eyes—a process that doesn’t usually happen on a human scale.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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