Our sun is still in its glory years at the ripe age of 4.5 billion years. In about 10 billion years, the sun’s core will lose massive amounts of hydrogen and helium, turning it into a red giant star. At least that’s what we all learned in middle school, right? Apparently, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

A new study published on Monday in Nature Astronomy gives more detail to previously existing ideas about what’ll happen once our sun dies. According the research, our sun will become a ghostly ring of expanding gas known as a planetary nebula.

“When a star dies it ejects a mass of gas and dust — known as its envelope — into space,” Professor Albert Zijlstra of the University of Manchester explains in a statement. “The envelope can be as much as half the star’s mass. This reveals the star’s core, which by this point in the star’s life is running out of fuel, eventually turning off and before finally dying.”

Planetary Nebula Abell 39
Planetary Nebula Abell 39

By developing a new kind of stellar data model, the team tried to plot out the sun’s final act. The model predicts the brightness of our sun’s planetary nebula based on the age and luminosity of other stars’ gaseous envelopes. Though scientists had long assumed that our sun wasn’t massive enough to form a planetary nebula, the team showed it is in fact a possibility.

The team’s models show that stars like our sun, although lower in mass compared to many others, can get really hot very quickly, even as it dies. This would mean that our sun could still eject gasses and dust to make a visible planetary nebula.

“We found that stars with mass less than 1.1 times the mass of the sun produce fainter nebula, and stars more massive than 3 solar masses brighter nebulae, but for the rest the predicted brightness is very close to what had been observed,” Zijlstra adds.

Could this settle the long-standing debate around our sun’s death? Not exactly, I mean, it’s just one study. That said, at least we have some compelling ideas about what’ll happen to our favorite sun when it’s finally time for it to die — it could become a ghost.

Photos via T.A.RECTOR (NRAO/AUI/NSF AND NOAO/AURA/NSF) AND B.A.WOLPA (NOAO/AURA/NSF)