This week the European Space Agency (ESA) dug up one of the final images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2), to provide a preview of the end of the world. Actually, the photo shows the end of a star known as Kohoutek 4-55 in its death throes. This star is all but gone now, but was once roughly the same mass as our sun.
The dying star is actually somewhere in the center of the colorful swirls of gas seen in the image above. As stars run out of the energy that keeps them burning bright, they pulsate irregularly, literally shaking off their outer layers and losing them to space. Underneath those outer layers, the uber-hot core of the star is revealed, and its ultraviolet radiation causes the cast-off gases to glow, creating a polychromatic nebula. Red in the composite image has been color-coded to signify nitrogen gas, green is hydrogen and blue shows oxygen.
This particular star is 4,600 light years away, meaning we're seeing at as it really was during the era of ruling Pharaohs in ancient Egypt.
According to the folks at ESA, we've got about 5 billion more years of life left in our own star before it starts to look something like this. Our sun is expected to shed its layers in a similar fashion, shrinking to become a white dwarf that will slowly cool off and die like a stubborn coal at the bottom of a fire pit.
Of course, by that time, the death convulsions of the sun will have already burnt Earth to a crisp, so this sort of preview may be the closest we'll ever come to actually witnessing the end of our star.