The Bubble Nebula really is a bubble. It is being blown into this shape by the bright star known as SAO20575, which sits just to the left of centre in this image. This is a giant star of 10–20 times the mass of the Sun.
The star is pumping out a fearsome torrent of ultraviolet radiation, causing the surrounding gases to glow like a fluorescent light. But it is not this ultraviolet radiation that is blowing the bubble. Instead, it is being created by SAO20575’s stellar wind.
A stellar wind is a high-speed flow of particles streaming away from the star. As they collide with the gas atoms and molecules in the surrounding cloud they push them away, creating this luminous bubble.
It's one of only about 10 stars in the entire sky classified as a recurrent nova, with two recorded outbursts to its name. Normally, the star slumbers at 10th magnitude, but on May 12, 1866, it hit the roof, reaching magnitude +2.0 and outshining every star in Corona Borealis before quickly fading back to obscurity. Eighty years later, on February 9, 1946, it sprang back to life, topping out at magnitude +3.0.
Many variable star observers include it in their nightly runs because it's easy to find 1° south-southeast of Epsilon (ε) in Corona Borealis and only requires a 3-inch telescope. Not to mention the huge payoff should you happen catch the star during one of its rare explosions.
The mechanism that drives the winds of giant stars is poorly determined. Astronomers think there are three possibilities: radiative, in which the pressure of the light pushes out the grains, magnetically driven, in which the stellar magnetic field plays a role in powering the flow, and pulsation driven, in which a periodic build-up of radiative energy in the stellar interior is suddenly released. Over the years scientific opinion has varied among these alternatives, depending on each particular stellar example. CfA astronomer Chris Johnson and his colleagues explored the problem of wind-driving mechanism in giant stars by measuring the motion of the outflowing CO gas around one the nearest and brightest giant stars, EU Del, which is only about 380 light-years away and shines with 1600 solar-luminosities. Its radius, if the star were placed at the position of the Sun, would extend past the orbit of Venus. EU Del is known to be a semi-regular variable star which pulses every sixty days or so (but with some secondary periods as well), and infrared observations suggest it has a circumstellar dust shell.
The brilliant flash of an exploding star’s shockwave—what astronomers call the “shock breakout”—has been captured for the first time in the optical wavelength or visible light by NASA's planet-hunter, the Kepler space telescope.
An international science team led by Peter Garnavich, an astrophysics professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, analyzed light captured by Kepler every 30 minutes over a three-year period from 500 distant galaxies, searching some 50 trillion stars. They were hunting for signs of massive stellar death explosions known as supernovae.
In 2011, two of these massive stars, called red supergiants, exploded while in Kepler’s view. The first behemoth, KSN 2011a, is nearly 300 times the size of our sun and a mere 700 million light years from Earth. The second, KSN 2011d, is roughly 500 times the size of our sun and around 1.2 billion light years away.