nebula [Lat.,=mist], in astronomy, observed manifestation of a collection of highly rarefied gas and dust in interstellar space. Prior to the 1960s this term was also applied to bodies later discovered to be galaxies, e.g., the so-called Great Nebula in the constellation Andromeda. In 1864, William Huggins confirmed William Herschel's conclusion that nebulae are not swarms of stars by determining that the spectra of nebulae are made of bright lines characteristic of radiating gases. Diffuse nebulae and planetary nebulae are two major classifications of these objects. Diffuse nebulae appear as light or dark clouds (called bright and dark nebulae), are irregular in shape, and range up to 100 light-years in diameter. Some bright nebulae, composed primarily of hydrogen gas ionized by nearby hot blue-white stars, radiate their own light; they are called emission nebulae and are characterized by narrow spectral emission lines. Other bright nebulae, existing near cooler stars and not receiving the radiation necessary to make them self-luminous, reflect the starlight and are called reflection nebulae. Over 300 bright nebulae have been cataloged; prime examples are the Orion Nebula, visible to the unaided eye, the Eta Carinae Nebula, and the smaller North America Nebula. Dark nebulae are detected as empty patches in a field of stars or as dark clouds obscuring part of a bright nebula in the background, as in the case of the Horsehead Nebula. Smaller bodies of dark nebulous matter having unusually high densities have been observed in some bright nebulous regions. Many astronomers believe that these bodies, called globules, are in the process of condensation and are the initial stages in the birth of stars. Planetary nebulae appear through the telescope as small disks with well-defined boundaries. They are the last stage of evolution for most stars, including the sun. Each consists of a shell of gaseous material surrounding a central hot star that emits radiation causing this material to glow. These shells measure about 20,000 AU in diameter (1 AU is the mean distance between the earth and the sun) and are slowly expanding, which suggests that they were expelled by the stars in nova eruptions.

See L. Allen, Atoms, Stars, and Nebulae, (3d ed. 1991).

Gaseous cloud from which, in the nebular hypothesis of the origin of the solar system, the Sun and planets formed by condensation. In 1755 Immanuel Kant suggested that a nebula gradually pulled together by its own gravity developed into the Sun and planets. Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace, in 1796 proposed a similar model, in which a rotating and contracting cloud of gas—the young Sun—shed concentric rings of matter that condensed into the planets. But James Clerk Maxwell showed that, if all the matter in the known planets had once been distributed this way, shearing forces would have prevented such condensation. Another objection was that the Sun has less angular momentum than the theory seems to require. In the early 20th century most astronomers preferred the collision theory: that the planets formed as a result of a close approach to the Sun by another star. Eventually, however, stronger objections were mounted to the collision theory than to the nebular hypothesis, and a modified version of the latter—in which a rotating disk of matter gave rise to the planets through successively larger agglomerations, from dust grains through planetesimals and protoplanets—became the prevailing theory of the solar system's origin.

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Any of a class of bright nebulae that may somewhat resemble planets when viewed through a small telescope but are, in fact, expanding shells of luminous gas around dying stars. A planetary nebula is the outer envelope shed by a red giant star not massive enough to become a supernova. Instead, the star's intensely hot core becomes exposed (see white dwarf star) and ionizes the surrounding shell of gas, which is expanding at tens of miles per second.

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Any of various tenuous clouds of gas and dust in interstellar space. Nebulae constitute only a small percentage of a galaxy's mass. Dark nebulae (e.g., the Coalsack) are very dense, cold molecular clouds that appear as large, obscure, irregularly shaped areas in the sky. Bright nebulae (e.g., the Crab Nebula, planetary nebula) appear as faintly luminous, glowing surfaces; they emit their own light or reflect that of stars near them. The term nebula also formerly referred to galaxies outside the Milky Way Galaxy.

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Bright nebula, faintly visible to the unaided eye in the sword of the hunter's figure in the constellation Orion. About 1,500 light-years from Earth, it contains hundreds of very hot young stars clustered about a group of four massive stars known as the Trapezium. Radiation primarily from these four stars excites the nebula to glow. Discovered in the early 17th century, it was the first nebula to be photographed (1880).

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Bright nebula in the constellation Taurus, about 5,000 light-years from Earth. Roughly 12 light-years in diameter, it is the remnant of a supernova, first observed by Chinese and other astronomers in 1054, that was visible in daylight for 23 days and at night for almost two years. Identified as a nebula circa 1731, it was named (for its form) in the mid-19th century. In 1921 it was discovered to be still expanding; the present rate is about 700 mi/second (1,100 km/second). The Crab is one of the few astronomical objects from which electromagnetic radiation has been detected over the entire measurable spectrum. In the late 1960s a pulsar, thought to be the collapsed remnant star of the supernova, was found near its centre.

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A nebula (from Latin: "mist" ; pl. nebulae or nebulæ, with ligature or nebulas) is an interstellar cloud of dust, hydrogen gas and plasma. It is the first stage of a star's cycle. Originally nebula was a general name for any extended astronomical object, including galaxies beyond the Milky Way (some examples of the older usage survive; for example, the Andromeda Galaxy was referred to as the Andromeda Nebula before galaxies were discovered by Edwin Hubble). Nebulae often form star-forming regions, such as in the Eagle Nebula. This nebula is depicted in one of NASA's most famous images, the "Pillars of Creation". In these regions the formations of gas, dust and other materials 'clump' together to form larger masses, which attract further matter, and eventually will become big enough to form stars. The remaining materials are then believed to form planets, and other planetary system objects.


Many nebulae form from the gravitational collapse of diffuse gas in the interstellar medium or ISM. As the material collapses under its own weight, massive stars may form in the center, and their ultraviolet radiation ionises the surrounding gas, making it visible at optical wavelengths. An example of this type of nebula is the Rosette Nebula or the Pelican Nebula. The size of these nebulae, known as HII regions, varies depending on the size of the original cloud of gas, and the number of stars formed can vary too. As the sites of star formation, the formed stars are sometimes known as a young, loose cluster.

Some nebulae are formed as the result of supernova explosions, the death throes of massive, short-lived stars. The material thrown off from the supernova explosion is ionised by the supernova remnant. One of the best examples of this is the Crab Nebula, in Taurus. It is the result of a recorded supernova, SN 1054, in the year 1054 and at the centre of the nebula is a neutron star, created during the explosion.

Other nebulae may form as planetary nebulae. This is the final stage of a low-mass star's life, like Earth's Sun. Stars with a mass up to 8-10 solar masses evolve into red giants and slowly lose their outer layers during pulsations in their atmospheres. When a star has lost a sufficient amount of material, its temperature increases and the ultraviolet radiation it emits is capable of ionizing the surrounding nebula that it has thrown off.

Diffuse nebulae

Most nebulae can be described as diffuse nebulae, which means that they are extended and contain no well-defined boundaries. In visible light these nebulae may be divided into emission nebulae and reflection nebulae, a categorization that depends on how the light we see is created. Emission nebulae contain ionized gas (mostly ionized hydrogen) that produces spectral line emission. These emission nebulae are often called HII regions; the term "HII" is used in professional astronomy to refer to ionized hydrogen. In contrast to emission nebulae, reflection nebulae do not produce significant amounts of visible light by themselves but instead reflect light from nearby stars.

Dark nebulae are similar to diffuse nebulae, but they are not seen by their emitted or reflected light. Instead, they are seen as dark clouds in front of more distant stars or in front of emission nebulae.

Although these nebulae appear different at optical wavelengths, they all appear to be bright sources of emission at infrared wavelengths. This emission comes primarily from the dust within the nebulae.

Specific types of nebulae

While diffuse nebulae have poorly-defined boundaries, a few nebulae may actually be described as discrete objects with identifiable boundaries.

Planetary nebulae

Planetary nebulae are nebulae that form from the gaseous shells that are ejected from low-mass asymptotic giant branch stars when they transform into white dwarfs. These nebulae are emission nebulae with spectral emission that is similar to the emission nebulae found in star formation regions. Technically, they are a type of HII region because the majority of hydrogen will be ionised. However, planetary nebulae are denser and more compact than the emission nebulae in star formation regions. Planetary nebulae are so called because the first astronomers who observed these objects thought that the nebulae resembled the disks of planets, although they are not at all related to planets.

Protoplanetary nebula

A protoplanetary nebula (PPN) is an astronomical object which is at the short-lived episode during a star's rapid stellar evolution between the late asymptotic giant branch (LAGB) phase and the subsequent planetary nebula (PN) phase. A PPN emits strong in infrared radiation, and is a kind of reflection nebula. The exact point when a PPN becomes a planetary nebula (PN) is defined by the temperature of the central star.

Supernova remnants

A supernova occurs when a high-mass star reaches the end of its life. When nuclear fusion ceases in the core of the star, the star collapses inward on itself. The gas falling inward either rebounds or gets so strongly heated that it expands outwards from the core, thus causing the star to explode. The expanding shell of gas form a supernova remnant, a special type of diffuse nebula. Although much of the optical and X-ray emission from supernova remnants originates from ionized gas, a substantial amount of the radio emission is a form of non-thermal emission called synchrotron emission. This emission originates from high-velocity and electrons oscillating within magnetic fields.

Notable named nebulae

See also


Further reading

Lightner, G. Samuel. "Nebulae: Fuzzy Patches in Space." 18 December 2000.

---. "Nebulae." 17 November 2005.

---. "Reflection Nebulae." 18 December 2000.

---. "Emission Nebulae." 18 December 2000.

---. "Planetary Nebulae." 18 December 2000.

---. "Supernova Remnants." December 2000.

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