Each Planetary Nebula is Unique. Why Do They Look So Different?

A large collage of planetary nebulas processed by Judy Schmidt. All are presented north up and at apparent size relative to one another. Colors are aesthetic choices, especially since most planetary nebulas are imaged with narrowband filters. Image Credits: NASA / ESA / Judy Schmidt

When it comes to cosmic eye candy, planetary nebulae are at the top of the candy bowl. Like fingerprints—or maybe fireworks displays—each one is different. What factors are at work to make them so unique from one another?

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The Formation of the Southern Ring Nebula was Messier Than the Death of a Single Star

JWST images of the Southern Ring Nebula as seen from the telescope's NIRCam (left) and MIRI (right). Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Two thousand five hundred years ago, during the height of the bronze age, an old red star died. Its outer layers expanded over time, becoming what is now known as the Southern Ring Nebula, or less romantically, NGC 3132. By the looks of it, this planetary nebula looks like many others. As Sun-like stars die, they swell to become red giants before becoming a white dwarf, and their outer layers typically become a planetary nebula. But a recent study finds that this particular nebula formed in a way quite messier than we had thought.

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New Hubble Photos of Planetary Nebulae

Hubble was recently retrained on NGC 6302, known as the "Butterfly Nebula," to observe it across a more complete spectrum of light, from near-ultraviolet to near-infrared, helping researchers better understand the mechanics at work in its technicolor "wings" of gas. Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Kastner (RIT)

Planetary nebulae are astronomy’s gateway drug. Their eye-catching forms make us wonder what process created them, and what else is going on up there in the night sky. They’re some of the most beautiful, ephemeral looking objects in all of nature.

The Hubble Space Telescope is responsible for many of our most gorgeous images of planetary nebulae. But the images are more than just engrossing eye candy. They’re documentation of a complex process that plays out over tens of thousands of years, all across the Universe.

And they’re a death knell for the star that dwells within.

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Planets Started Out From Dust Clumping Together. Here’s How

Artist depiction of a protoplanetary disk permeated by magnetic fields. Objects in the foregrounds are millimeter-sized rock pellets known as chondrules. Credit: Hernán Cañellas

According to the most widely accepted theory of planet formation (the Nebular Hypothesis), the Solar System began roughly 4.6 billion years ago from a massive cloud of dust and gas (aka. a nebula). After the cloud experienced gravitational collapse at the center, forming the Sun, the remaining gas and dust fell into a disk that orbited it. The planets gradually accreted from this disk over time, creating the system we know today.

However, until now, scientists have wondered how dust could come together in microgravity to form everything from stars and planets to asteroids. However, a new study by a team of German researchers (and co-authored by Rutgers University) found that matter in microgravity spontaneously develops strong electrical charges and stick together. These findings could resolve the long mystery of how planets formed.

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This Star Has Reached the End of its Life

This Picture of the Week from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows NGC 5307, a planetary nebula which lies about 10000 light years from Earth. It can be seen in the constellation Centaurus (The Centaur), which can be seen primarily in the southern hemisphere.  A planetary nebula is the final stage of a Sun-like star. As such, planetary nebulae allow us a glimpse into the future of our own Solar System. A star like our Sun will, at the end of its life, transform into a red giant. Stars are sustained by the nuclear fusion that occurs in their core, which creates energy. The nuclear fusion processes constantly try to rip the star apart. Only the gravity of the star prevents this from happening.  At the end of the red giant phase of a star, these forces become unbalanced. Without enough energy created by fusion, the core of the star collapses in on itself, while the surface layers are ejected outward. After that, all that remains of the star is what we see here: glowing outer layers surrounding a white dwarf star, the remnants of the red giant star’s core.  This isn’t the end of this star’s evolution though — those outer layers are still moving and cooling. In just a few thousand years they will have dissipated, and all that will be left to see is the dimly glowing white dwarf.

About 10,000 light years away, in the constellation Centaurus, is a planetary nebula called NGC 5307. A planetary nebula is the remnant of a star like our Sun, when it has reached what can be described as the end of its life. This Hubble image of NGC 5307 not only makes you wonder about the star’s past, it makes you ponder the future of our very own Sun.

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Can You Spot a Planetary Nebula from a Few Blurry Pixels? Astronomers Can – Here’s How

A planetary nebula is one of the most beautiful objects in the universe. Formed from the decaying remnants of a mid-sized star like a sun, no two are alike. Cosmically ephemeral, they last for only about 10,000 years – a blink of a cosmic eye. And yet they are vitally important, as their processed elements spread and intermingle with the interstellar medium in preparation for forming a new generation of stars. So studying them is important for understanding stellar evolution. But unlike their stellar brethren, since no two are alike, it’s hard to efficiently pick them out of astronomical deep-sky surveys. Thankfully, a research team has recently developed a method for doing just that, and their work could open up the door to fully understanding the great circle of stellar life.

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Messier 76 – the NGC 650/651 Planetary Nebula

Little Dumbbell Nebula and Andromeda Galaxy. Credit: Wikisky

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the “little dumbbell” itself, the planetary nebula known as Messier 76!

During the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noticed the presence of several “nebulous objects”  while surveying the night sky. Originally mistaking these objects for comets, he began to catalog them so that others would not make the same mistake. Today, the resulting list (known as the Messier Catalog) includes over 100 objects and is one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Space Objects.

One of these objects is the Messier 76 (aka. the Little Dumbbell Nebula, the Barbell Nebula, or the Cork Nebula) a planetary nebula located about 2,500 light years away in the Perseus Constellation. While it is easy to find because of its proximity to the Cassiopeia Constellation (located just south of it), the faintness of this nebula makes it one of the more difficult Messier Objects to observe. Continue reading “Messier 76 – the NGC 650/651 Planetary Nebula”

Binary Stars Orbiting Each Other INSIDE a Planetary Nebula

The planetary Nebula M3-1, obtained by Hubble Space Telescope. The central star is actually a binary system with one of the shortest orbital periods known. Credit: David Jones/Daniel López/IAC

Planetary nebulae are a fascinating astronomical phenomena, even if the name is a bit misleading. Rather than being associated with planets, these glowing shells of gas and dust are formed when stars enter the final phases of their lifespan and throw off their outer layers. In many cases, this process and the subsequent structure of the nebula is the result of the star interacting with a nearby companion star.

Recently, while examining the planetary nebula M3-1, an international team of astronomers noted something rather interesting. After observing the nebula’s central star, which is actually a binary system, they noticed that the pair had an incredibly short orbital period – i.e. the stars orbit each other once every 3 hours and 5 minutes. Based on this behavior, the pair are likely to merge and trigger a nova explosion.

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