Planetary Nebulae Imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope

Closeup of the Dumbell Nebula NGC 6853 M27

Image Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)
Image Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)

Planetary Nebulae

Planetary Nebula is a huge misnomer. It has nothing to do with planets. They are not visible through the naked eye. They were originally named in the 18th century when astronomers looking through the small telescopes of that time period saw what looked like giant planets. The first planetary nebula was discovered in 1764 by Charles Messier who cataloged it as M27. It was named the Dumbbell Nebula and later cataloged as NGC 6853 in the new classification system NGC (New General Catalog). It is located in the constellation Vulpecula about 1,360 light years away. This is a catalog of mainly deep space objects such as stars, nebulae and galaxies compiled by J. L. E. Dreyer in the 1880’s. It includes 7,840 objects. There are also two supplements called the Index Catalogue (IC) also compiled by Dreyer. The first (IC I), published in 1895, added 1,529 new star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies; the second (IC II), published in 1908, listed 3,857 more objects. The M numbering system is a catalog by Charles Messier (1730-1817). He was a French astronomer looking for comets and he cataloged other objects he found that were permanent objects in the sky in order to help other astronomers also looking for comets.

What is a Planetary Nebula?

A planetary nebula is an expanding area of glowing gas expelled by a star at the end of its life when it is collapsing into a white dwarf, the name for the very dense remains of a star. Not all stars end their lives by forming a planetary nebula. The mass of our sun is considered one solar mass. This is used as a standard to compare masses with other stars and galaxies. Heavier stars of more than 8 solar masses end their lives in supernova explosions. Medium to lower massed stars may end their lives in a planetary nebula. This occurs when a star can no longer support itself by fusion reactions in its center. The inner parts condense and heat up driving the outer portions away. This leaves the core remnant uncovered which heats the now distant gases and causes them to glow. They are relatively short-lived, from 10,000 to 25,000 years. The Helix Nebula is the one of the closest to Earth at 650 light years away (a light year is the distance that a particle of light (a photon) will travel in a year — about 10 trillion kilometers or 6 trillion miles). It can be seen with binoculars as a greenish cloud in the constellation Aquarius. The planetary nebula gas clouds are all unique and come in many shapes and sizes. Some of them are named after what they resemble. Many are only known by their NGC number.

 

Hubble Images of Planetary Nebulae

 

Bubble Nebula NGC 7635

Credit: The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA/NASA)
Credit: The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA/NASA)

This nebula is 10 light-years across, more than twice the distance from Earth to the nearest star. It is located in the northern constellation Cassiopeia. Only part of the bubble is visible in this image.

Eight Burst Nebula or Southern Ring Nebula NGC 3132

Credit: The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA/NASA)
Credit: The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA/NASA)

NGC 3132 is nearly half a light year in diameter, and at a distance of about 2000 light years is one of the nearer known planetary nebulae. The gases are expanding away from the central star at a speed of 9 miles per second. It is located in the southern hemisphere in the constellation Vela.

 

Little Ghost Nebula NGC 6369

Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)
Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)

NGC 6369 lies in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus, at a distance estimated to be between about 2,000 and 5,000 light-years from Earth.

Planetary Nebula NGC 6751

Credit: NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)
Credit: NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)

Current estimates are that NGC 6751 is roughly 6,500 light-years from Earth. The nebula's diameter is 0.8 light-years, some 600 times the diameter of our own solar system. It is located in the constellation Aquila

 

Retina Nebula IC 4406

Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)
Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)

IC 4406 exhibits a high degree of symmetry; the left and right halves of the Hubble image are nearly mirror images of the other. It is located near the western border of the constellation Lupus the Wolf.   

 

Ring Nebula M57 NGC 6720

Credit: The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA/NASA)
Credit: The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA/NASA)

Most famous of all planetary nebulae. This nebula is about a light-year in diameter and is located some 2,000 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Lyra. The colors are approximately true colors.

 

Spirograph Nebula IC 418

Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)
Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)

IC 418 lies about 2,000 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Lepus.

 

Planetary Nebula NGC 2440

Credit: NASA,ESA and K. Noll (STScl)
Credit: NASA,ESA and K. Noll (STScl)

Approximately 3,600 light-years away in the constellation Puppis. The white dwarf at the center of NGC 2440 is one of the hottest known, with a surface temperature of nearly 400,000 degrees Fahrenheit (200,000 degrees Celsius)

 

Planetary Nebula NGC 2818

Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)
Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)

This nebula is 10,400 light-years away and lies in the southern constellation of Pyxis (the Compass).

 

Butterfly or Bug Nebula NGC 6302

Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team
Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

This is 3,800 light-years away in the constellation Scorpius. The "butterfly" stretches for more than two light-years, which is about half the distance from the Sun to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.

 

Planetary Nebula NGC 5315

Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)
Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)

This nebula is 7,900 light-years away in the constellation Centaurus.

 

Ant Nebula Menzel 3

Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)
Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)

3000 light-years away in the constellation Norma.

 

Planetary Nebula K-455

Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)
Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)

This nebula is 4,600 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus.

 

Planetary Nebula NGC 2371

Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)
Credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AURA)

This one is about 4,300 light-years in the constellation Gemini.

 

Our Sun's Fate

These are some fantastic and beautiful pictures that came from the chaos of a dying star or sun. Our sun will eventually end its life by creating a planetary nebula; but probably not for another 5 billion years!

 

Sources:

Astronomy Magazine Collector’s Edition – Hubble’s Greatest Pictures

www.hubblesite.org – the official website of the Hubble Space Telescope

 

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Comments 4 comments

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 6 years ago

Nice to learn all of these interesting things about planetary nebulae, and the pictures are beautiful. There is one looking as an eye (Credit: NASA, NOAO, ESA, the Hubble Helix Nebula Team, M. Meixner (STScl), and T.A. Rector (NRAO) ). I love it!


Rose Kolowinski profile image

Rose Kolowinski 6 years ago Author

I think planetary nebula are some of the most beautiful objects in the universe. Thanks for your comments, vox vocis.


technorican profile image

technorican 6 years ago from Houston

This is excellent! I'm writing about my personal connection to Hubble.


Rose Kolowinski profile image

Rose Kolowinski 6 years ago Author

Thank you technorican. I look forward to reading about your connection to Hubble. In my humble opinion, the HST is one of the most amazing space explorers! I'm eagerly awaiting the launch of the James Webb telescope to see what wonders it will reveal. Thanks for stopping by.

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