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Planetary nebula

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Planetary nebula

X-ray/optical composite image of the Cat's Eye Nebula.

NGC 6326, a planetary nebula with glowing wisps of outpouring gas that are lit up by a binary[1] central star.

A planetary nebula, often abbreviated as PN or plural PNe, is a kind of emission nebula consisting of an expanding glowing shell of ionized gas ejected from old red giant stars late in their lives.[2] The word 'nebula' is Latin for mist or cloud and the term 'planetary nebula' is a misnomer that originated in the 1780s with astronomer William Herschel because when viewed through his telescope, these objects appeared to him to resemble the rounded shapes of planets. Herschel's name for these objects was popularly adopted and has not been changed.[3][4] They are a relatively short-lived phenomenon, lasting a few tens of thousands of years, compared to a typical stellar lifetime of several billion years.

A mechanism for formation of most planetary nebulae is thought to be the following: at the end of the star's life, during the red giant phase, the outer layers of the star are expelled by strong stellar winds. Eventually, after most of the red giant's atmosphere is dissipated, the exposed hot, luminous core emits ultraviolet radiation to ionize the ejected outer layers of the star.[2] Absorbed ultraviolet light energises the shell of nebulous gas around the central star, appearing as a bright coloured planetary nebula at several discrete visible wavelengths.

Planetary nebulae may play a crucial role in the chemical evolution of the Milky Way, returning material to the interstellar medium from stars where elements, the products of nucleosynthesis (such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and neon), have been created. Planetary nebulae are also observed in more distant galaxies, yielding useful information about their chemical abundances.

In recent years, Hubble Space Telescope images have revealed many planetary nebulae to have extremely complex and varied morphologies. About one-fifth are roughly spherical, but the majority are not spherically symmetric. The mechanisms which produce such a wide variety of shapes and features are not yet well understood, but binary central stars, stellar winds and magnetic fields may play a role.


Colorful shell which has an almost eye like appearance. The center shows the small central star with a blue circular area that could represent the iris. This is surrounded by an iris like area of concentric orange bands. This is surrounded by an eyelid shaped red area before the edge where plain space is shown. Background stars dot the whole image.
NGC 7293, The Helix Nebula
Credit: NASA, ESA, and C.R. O'Dell (Vanderbilt University)

Spherical shell of colored area against background stars. Intricate cometary-like knots radiate inwards from the edge to about a third of the way to the center. The center half contains brighter spherical shells that overlap each other and have rough edges. Lone central star is visible in the middle. No background stars are visible.
NGC 2392, The Eskimo Nebula
Credit: NASA, ESA, Andrew Fruchter (STScI), and the ERO team (STScI + ST-ECF)

Planetary nebulae are generally faint objects; none are visible to the naked eye. The first planetary nebula discovered was the Dumbbell Nebula in the constellation of Vulpecula. It was observed by Charles Messier in 1764 and listed as M27 in his catalogue of nebulous objects.[5] To early observers with low-resolution telescopes, M27 and subsequently discovered planetary nebulae somewhat resembled the giant planets like Uranus. William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus, eventually coined the term 'planetary nebula' for them.[5][6] At first Herschel thought the objects were stars surrounded by material that was condensing into planets rather than what is known to be evidence of dead stars that have incinerated any orbiting planets.[7]

The nature of planetary nebulae was unknown until the first spectroscopic observations were made in the mid-19th century. Using a prism to disperse their light, William Huggins was one of the earliest astronomers to study the optical spectra of astronomical objects.[6] On August 29, 1864, Huggins was the first to analyze the spectrum of a planetary nebula when he observed NGC 6543.[5] His observations of stars showed that their spectra consisted of a continuum of radiation with many dark lines superimposed on them. He later found that many nebulous objects such as the Andromeda Nebula (as it was then known) had spectra that were quite similar. These nebulae were later shown to be galaxies.

However, when Huggins looked at the Cat's Eye Nebula, he found a very different spectrum. Rather than a strong continuum with absorption lines superimposed, the Cat's Eye Nebula and other similar objects showed only a small number of emission lines.[6] The brightest of these was at a wavelength of 500.7 nanometres, which did not correspond with a line of any known element.[8] At first it was hypothesized that the line might be due to an unknown element, which was named nebulium. A similar idea had led to the discovery of helium through analysis of the Sun's spectrum in 1868.[5]

While helium was isolated on earth soon after its discovery in the spectrum of the sun, nebulium was not. In the early 20th century Henry Norris Russell proposed that rather than being a new element, the line at 500.7 nm was due to a familiar element in unfamiliar conditions.[5]

Physicists showed in the 1920s that in gas at extremely low densities, electrons can populate excited metastable energy levels in atoms and ions which at higher densities are rapidly de-excited by collisions.[9] Electron transitions from these levels in nitrogen and oxygen ions (O+, O2+ or OIII, and N+) give rise to the 500.7 nm emission line and others.[5] These spectral lines, which can only be seen in very low density gases, are called forbidden lines. Spectroscopic observations thus showed that nebulae were made of extremely rarefied gas.[10]

The central stars of planetary nebulae are very hot.[2] Only once a star has exhausted most of its nuclear fuel can it collapse to such a small size. Planetary nebulae came to be understood as a final stage of stellar evolution. Spectroscopic observations show that all planetary nebulae are expanding. This led to the idea that planetary nebulae were caused by a star's outer layers being thrown into space at the end of its life.[5]

Towards the end of the 20th century, technological improvements helped to further the study of planetary nebulae.[11] Space telescopes allowed astronomers to study light wavelengths outside those that the earth's atmosphere transmits. Infrared and ultraviolet studies of planetary nebulae allowed much more accurate determinations of nebular temperatures, densities and elemental abundances.[12][13] Charge-coupled device technology allowed much fainter spectral lines to be measured accurately than had previously been possible. The Hubble Space Telescope also showed that while many nebulae appear to have simple and regular structures when observed from the ground, the very high optical resolution achievable by telescopes above the Earth's atmosphere reveals extremely complex structures.[14][15]

Under the [16]


Central star has elongated S shaped curve of white emanating in opposite directions to the edge. A butterfly-like area surrounds the S shape with the S shape corresponding to the body of the butterfly.
Computer simulation of the formation of a planetary nebula from a star with a warped disk, showing the complexity which can result from a small initial asymmetry.
Credit: Vincent Icke

Stars greater than 8 solar masses (M) will likely end their lives in dramatic supernovae explosions, while planetary nebulae seemingly only occur at the end of the lives of intermediate and low mass stars between 0.8 M to 8.0 M. [17] Progenitor stars that form planetary nebulae will spend most of their lifetimes converting their hydrogen into helium in the star's core by nuclear fusion at about 15 million K. This generated energy creates outward pressure from fusion reactions in the core, equally balancing the crushing inward pressures of the star's gravity.[18] Hence, all single intermediate to low-mass stars on the main sequence can last for tens of millions to billions of years.

When the hydrogen source in the core starts to diminish, gravity starts compressing the core, causing a rise in temperature to about 100 million K.[19] Such higher core temperatures then make the star's cooler outer layers expand to create much larger red giant stars. This end phase causes a dramatic rise in stellar luminosity, where the released energy is distributed over a much larger surface area, even though the average surface temperature is lower. In stellar evolution terms, stars undergoing such increases in luminosity are known as asymptotic giant branch stars (AGB).[19]

For the more massive asymptotic giant branch stars that form planetary nebulae, whose progenitors exceed about 3M, their cores will continue to contract. When temperatures reach about 100 million K, the available helium nuclei fuse into carbon and oxygen, so that the star again resumes to radiate energy, temporarily stopping the core's contraction. This new helium burning phase (fusion of helium nuclei) forms a growing inner core of inert carbon and oxygen. Above it is a thin helium-burning shell, surrounded in turn by a hydrogen-burning shell. However, this new phase lasts only 20,000 years or so, a short period compared to the entire lifetime of the star.

In either scenario, the venting of atmosphere continues unabated into interstellar space, but when the outer surface of the exposed core reaches temperatures exceeding about 30,000 K, there are enough emitted ultraviolet photons to ionize the ejected atmosphere, causing the gas to shine as a planetary nebula.[19]


The Necklace Nebula consists of a bright ring, measuring about two light-years across, dotted with dense, bright knots of gas that resemble diamonds in a necklace. The knots glow brightly due to absorption of ultraviolet light from the central stars.[20]

After a star passes through the asymptotic giant branch (AGB) phase, the short planetary nebula phase of stellar evolution begins[11] as gases blown away from the central star at speeds of a few kilometers per second. The central star is the remnant of its AGB progenitor, an electron-degenerate carbon-oxygen core that has lost most of its hydrogen envelope due to mass loss on the AGB.[11] As the gases expand, the central star undergoes a two-stage evolution, first growing hotter as it continues to contract and hydrogen fusion reactions occur in the shell around the core and then slowly cooling once the hydrogen shell is exhausted through fusion and mass loss.[11] In the second phase, it radiates away its energy and fusion reactions cease, as the central star is not heavy enough to generate the core temperatures required for carbon and oxygen to fuse.[5][11] During the first phase, the central star maintains constant luminosity,[11] while at the same time it grows ever hotter, eventually reaching temperatures around 100,000 K. In the second phase, it cools so much that it does not give off enough ultraviolet radiation to ionize the increasingly distant gas cloud. The star becomes a white dwarf, and the expanding gas cloud becomes invisible to us, ending the planetary nebula phase of evolution.[11] For a typical planetary nebula, about 10,000 years[11] passes between its formation and recombination of the star.[5]

Galactic recyclers

Planetary nebulae play a very important role in galactic evolution. The early universe consisted almost entirely of hydrogen and helium, but stars create heavier elements via nuclear fusion. The gases of planetary nebulae thus contain a large proportion of elements such as carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, and as they expand and merge into the interstellar medium, they enrich it with these heavy elements, collectively known as metals by astronomers.[21]

Subsequent generations of stars which form from the nebular remains will then have a higher initial content of heavier elements. Even though the heavy elements will still be a very small component of the star, they have a marked effect on its evolution. Stars which formed very early in the universe and contain small quantities of heavy elements are known as Population II stars, while younger stars with higher heavy element content are known as Population I stars (see stellar population).[22]


Physical characteristics

Elliptical shell with fine red outer edge surrounding region of yellow and then pink around a nearly circular blue area with the central star at its center. A few background stars are visible.
NGC 6720, The Ring Nebula
Credit: STScI/AURA

Lemon slice nebula (IC 3568).

A typical planetary nebula is roughly one light year across, and consists of extremely rarefied gas, with a density generally from 100 to 10,000 particles per cm3.[23] (The Earth's atmosphere, by comparison, contains 2.5×1019 particles per cm3.) Young planetary nebulae have the highest densities, sometimes as high as 106 particles per cm3. As nebulae age, their expansion causes their density to decrease. The masses of planetary nebulae range from 0.1 to 1 solar masses.[23]

Radiation from the central star heats the gases to temperatures of about 10,000 K.[24] The gas temperature in central regions is usually much higher than at the periphery reaching 16,000–25,000 K.[25] The volume in the vicinity of the central star is often filled with a very hot (coronal) gas having the temperature of about 1,000,000 K. This gas originates from the surface of the central star in the form of the fast stellar wind.[26]

Nebulae may be described as matter bounded or radiation bounded. In the former case, there is not enough matter in the nebula to absorb all the UV photons emitted by the star, and the visible nebula is fully ionized. In the latter case, there are not enough UV photons being emitted by the central star to ionize all the surrounding gas, and an ionization front propagates outward into the circumstellar envelope of neutral atoms.[27]

Numbers and distribution

About 3000 planetary nebulae are now known to exist in our galaxy,[28] out of 200 billion stars. Their very short lifetime compared to total stellar lifetime accounts for their rarity. They are found mostly near the plane of the Milky Way, with the greatest concentration near the galactic center.[29]


This animation shows how the two stars at the heart of a planetary nebula like Fleming 1 can control the creation of the spectacular jets of material ejected from the object.

Only about 20% of planetary nebulae are spherically symmetric (for example, see Abell 39).[30] A wide variety of shapes exist with some very complex forms seen. Planetary nebulae are classified by different authors into: stellar, disk, ring, irregular, helical, bipolar, quadrupolar,[31] and other types,[32] although the majority of them belong to just three types: spherical, elliptical and bipolar. Bipolar nebulae are concentrated in the galactic plane, likely produced by relatively young massive progenitor stars; and bipolars in the galactic bulge appear to prefer orienting their orbital axes parallel to the galactic plane.[33] On the other hand, spherical nebulae are likely produced by the old stars similar to the Sun.[26]

The huge variety of the shapes is partially the projection effect—the same nebula when viewed under different angles will appear different. Nevertheless, the reason for the huge variety of physical shapes is not fully understood.[32] Gravitational interactions with companion stars if the central stars are double stars may be one cause. Another possibility is that planets disrupt the flow of material away from the star as the nebula forms. It has been determined that the more massive stars produce more irregularly shaped nebulae.[34] In January 2005, astronomers announced the first detection of magnetic fields around the central stars of two planetary nebulae, and hypothesized that the fields might be partly or wholly responsible for their remarkable shapes.[35][36]

Membership in clusters

Abell 78, 24 inch telescope on Mt. Lemmon, AZ. Courtesy of Joseph D. Schulman.

Planetary nebulae have been detected as members in four globular clusters: Messier 15, Messier 22, NGC 6441 and Palomar 6. However, there is currently only one established case of a planetary nebula discovered in an open cluster.[37] The cases of NGC 2348 in Messier 46, and NGC 2818, are often cited as bona fide instances, however, they are instead line-of-sight coincidences.[29][38][39]

Partly because of their small total mass, open clusters have relatively poor gravitational cohesion. Consequently, open clusters tend to disperse after a relatively short time, typically from 100 to 600 million years.[40]

Theoretical models predict that planetary nebulae can form from main-sequence stars of between one and eight solar masses, which puts the progenitor star's age at greater than 40 million years. Although there are a few hundred known open clusters within that age range, a variety of reasons limit the chances of finding a planetary nebula within. For one reason, the planetary nebula phase for more massive stars is on the order of thousands of years—a blink of the eye in cosmic terms.[29]

Current issues in planetary nebula studies

Odd pair of aging stars sculpt spectacular shape of planetary nebula.[41]
Tiny planetary nebula NGC 6886.

The distances to planetary nebulae are generally poorly determined.[42] It is possible to determine distances to the nearest planetary nebula by measuring their expansion rates. High resolution observations taken several years apart will show the expansion of the nebula perpendicular to the line of sight, while spectroscopic observations of the Doppler shift will reveal the velocity of expansion in the line of sight. Comparing the angular expansion with the derived velocity of expansion will reveal the distance to the nebula.[14]

The issue of how such a diverse range of nebular shapes can be produced is a debatable topic. It is theorised that interactions between material moving away from the star at different speeds gives rise to most observed shapes.[32] However, some astronomers postulate that close binary central stars might be responsible for the more complex and extreme planetary nebulae.[43] Several have been shown to exhibit strong magnetic fields,[44] and their interactions with ionized gas could explain some planetary nebulae shapes.[36]

There are two main methods of determining metal abundances in nebulae. These rely on recombination lines and collisionally excited lines. Large discrepancies are sometimes seen between the results derived from the two methods. This may be explained by the presence of small temperature fluctuations within planetary nebulae. The discrepancies may be too large to be caused by temperature effects, and some hypothesize the existence of cold knots containing very little hydrogen to explain the observations. However, such knots have yet to be observed.[45]

See also

Preceding evolutionary stage:

Subsequent evolutionary stage:

General topics:

Otherwise related:

Alternative developments:


  1. ^ Miszalski et al. 2011
  2. ^ a b c Frankowski & Soker 2009, pp. 654–8
  3. ^ SEDS 2013
  4. ^ 1997
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Kwok 2000, pp. 1–7
  6. ^ a b c Moore 2007, pp. 279–80
  7. ^ Malin, David (1993), A View of the Universe, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Sky Publishing Corporation, p. 168,  
  8. ^ Huggins & Miller 1864, pp. 437–44
  9. ^ Bowen 1927, pp. 295–7
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  12. ^ Hora et al. 2004, pp. 296–301
  13. ^ Kwok et al. 2006, pp. 445–6
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  16. ^ Krause 1961, p. 187
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  18. ^ Harpaz 1994, pp. 55–80
  19. ^ a b c Harpaz 1994, pp. 99–112
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Cited sources

Further reading

External links

  • Entry in the Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy, and Spaceflight
  • Press release on recent observations of the Cat's Eye Nebula
  • Planetary Nebulae, SEDS Messier Pages
  • The first detection of magnetic fields in the central stars of four planetary nebulae
  • Planetary Nebulae—Information and amateur observations
  • Planetary nebula on

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