Within easy sight of the astronomy building at the University of Washington sits the foundry of glassblower Dale Chihuly. Chihuly is famous for glass sculptures whose brilliant flowing forms conjure up active undersea creatures. When they are illuminated strongly in a dark room, the play of light dancing through the stiff glass forms commands them to life. Yellow jellyfish and red octopuses jet through cobalt waters. A forest of deep-sea kelp sways with the tides. A pair of iridescent pink scallops embrace each other like lovers.
For astronomers, Chihuly's works have another resonance: few other human creations so convincingly evoke the glories of celestial structures called planetary nebulae. Lit from the inside by depleted stars, fluorescently colored by glowing atoms and ions, and set against the cosmic blackness, these gaseous shapes seem to come alive. Researchers have given them such names as the Ant, the Starfish Twins and the Cat's Eye. Hubble Space Telescope observations of these objects are some of the most mesmerizing space images ever obtained.
This article was originally published with the title The Extraordinary Deaths of Ordinary Stars.