Some three thousand light years from Earth exists an object known colloquially as the "Cat's Eye Nebula." Now approaching the end of its life, the nucleus at the center of this nebula burns 10,000 times brighter than our Sun.
All things that exist share one thing in common: the inevitability of death. This image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows a distant star in the midst of its demise.
After it had burned through all of its hydrogen, the star at the center of this nebula began fusing heavier elements in its core. When heavier elements fuse, they release far more energy than lighter ones, leading to such an energetic event that this star ejected many solar masses worth of material out into space at an extreme velocity. This process is what led to the formation of the many halos of gaseous material imaged above.
Like a ghostly apparition, this star provides us with an ominous peek at what our own Sun will one day experience some four or five billion years in the future.
Now, taking a step back from this initial scene reveals an even more impressive structure:
Over three light years across, this gigantic outer halo dwarfs the smaller halo at its core. The power of the cosmos is undeniable, and yet, despite this power, the cosmos is so incredibly vast that it doesn't give a damn.
If our entire galaxy were represented by the Amazon rain forest of South America, then this nebula could be represented by a single burning candle in the jungle. Our Sun would then resemble a tiny speck of softly glowing ember nearby, insignificant and almost invisible in comparison to this nebulous candle.
The jungle of the cosmos existed long before and will exist long after this candle is extinguished; it will also exist long after our tiny glowing ember has itself been ignited and extinguished.
Following these stellar deaths, the photons of light released by these events will travel through the vacuum of space for an unfathomable length of time, eventually travelling beyond the realm of all other matter. But, as we currently understand, even photons will eventually break down and dissolve into ever smaller particles.
After enough time has passed in the cosmos, it will begin to look as though nothing had ever existed at all. And yet, the cosmos itself will remain—the basic constituents of space and time may continue to exist, but these concepts become meaningless once all matter has dissolved into its most basic parts.
It is by this mechanism that stars and other finite objects all eventually pass from nature to infinity—when all matter in the universe breaks down into near nothingness, existence and non-existence become indistinguishable from one another.
The cosmos encloses all life and will enclose all death. It contains what is finite as well as what is infinite, and in this way it is beyond comprehension. All that exists shall pass into nonexistence, and then beyond.
'Tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
This Too Shall Pass.
More Shakespeare in Space:
- Shakespeare in Space #7: Life... It Is a Tale told by an Idiot
- Shakespeare in Space #6: There is a World Elsewhere
- Shakespeare in Space #5: Ghost Head Halloween
- Shakespeare in Space #4: The Heavens Themselves Blaze Forth
- Shakespeare in Space #3: When We are Born
- Shakespeare in Space #2: Stars, Hide your Fires
- Shakespeare in Space #1: Slipp'd, Dissolved, and Loosed