Celestial Tour: Planetary Nebulae—Sculptures in the Sky

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The "face" of the clown looks like a ball of twine, but is really a bubble of gas and dust being blown into space by a strong "wind" from the star.

Planetary Nebulas

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with NASA’s Universe of Learning partners: Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Sonoma State University
All images, illustrations, and videos courtesy of NASA, ESA, and STScI except:

  • Sun rotation movie courtesy of NASA/STEREO
  • Animation of Sun becoming a red dwarf courtesy of ESA/Hubble (M. Kornmesser & L. L. Christensen)
  • Animation of a planetary nebula’s expansion courtesy of ESA/Hubble (M. Kornmesser)
  • Planetary nebula fly-around animation courtesy of ESA/Hubble (M. Kornmesser)
  • Taurus constellation drawing from Firmamentum Sobiescianum sive Uranographia by Johannes Hevelius, courtesy of the United States Naval Observatory
  • Abell 39 image courtesy of WIYN/NOAO/NSF
  • Bipolar planetary nebula formation animation by Thomas Goertel (STScI)
  • Garden Sprinkler Nebula image courtesy of ESA, A. Riera (Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya, Spain) and P. Garcia-Lario (European Space Agency ISO Data Centre, Spain)
  • Garden sprinkler animation courtesy of ESA/Hubble (M. Kornmesser & L. L. Christensen)
  • Saturn Nebula (NGC 7009) image courtesy of Brad Ehrhorn/Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF
  • Photo of observatory dome courtesy of Phil Massey, Lowell Observatory/NOAO/AURA/NSF
  • Animation of Hubble Space Telescope over Earth courtesy of ESA/Hubble (M. Kornmesser & L. L. Christensen)
  • Cat’s Eye Nebula ground-based image courtesy of Bruce Balick, University of Washington
  • Ring Nebula ground-based image courtesy of Daniel Folha and Simon Tulloch, Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, La Palma
  • Helix Nebula ground-based image copyright Edward M. Henry
  • Image of Magellanic Clouds courtesy of ESO/C. Malin
  • Image of Large Magellanic Cloud © Australian Astronomical Observatory; photograph by David Malin
  • Written by Vanessa Thomas and John Stoke
  • Designed by John Godfrey 
  • Music courtesy of Association Production Music

Text, Sculptures in the sky. A bubble of gas expands into space, one of the thousands of planetary nebulae known within our milky way galaxy. . A pale white ring of gas in a dark starry sky.
A nebula is a cloud of gas and dust. Image of N G C 7009, an oblong round cloud nebula. Text, Early astronomers called some of these clouds planetary nebulae because they looked like planets. The planet saturn, a sphere with rings around it, a slightly similar shape. Text, but planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. 6 different nebulae each with a different shape and color pattern, some bright red or orange and others blue green and purple. Text, they are shells of gas ejected by dying stars. From earth most planetary nebulae look tiny. An observatory under a night sky looking up at a tiny point of light. An animation of a cylindrical satellite telescope passing high over earth. Text, Orbiting above earth's atmosphere Nasa's hubble space telescope can see amazing details in planetary nebulae.
An image of the cat's eye nebula, a blurry view from ground then a sharp view from Hubble, 2 bright yellow green round clouds with a bright point in the center and rimmed with red.
The ring nebula, seen from the ground, a blurry ring-shaped cloud, resolves into a magnificent barrel of gas cast off by a dying star thousands of years ago.
In this planetary nebula, called the Spirograph, Hubble has revealed complex textures never before seen. A round nebula with a bright purple center criss-crossed by many overlapping lines in a pattern. Text, tattered streams of gas radiate from the center of this planetary nebula which looks like a giant eye. This stellar relic is nicknamed clownface nebula; it resembles a face surrounded by curly hair. A bright round orange nebula with a ring of fluffy clouds around it. Text, in the outer ring comet-like tails stream away from the central dying star.
The face of the clown looks like a ball of twine, but is really a bubble of gas and dust being blown into space by a strong wind from the star.
A mere 650 light years away the helix nebula is one of the closest planetary nebula to earth. An eye shaped nebula with a clear blue center and magenta clouds at the edges. The view from Hubble, a more complex and detailed view with layers of orangeish clouds. Text, Because the helix nebula is so close Hubble can see fine details. Zoom in on the edge of the center of the nebula. Text, Thousands of tadpole-shaped cometary knots surround the dying star. Unlike comets in our solar system, these knots are billions of miles across.
An image of a diffused purplish cloud filled with reddish stars. Text, peering into the Large Magellanic Cloud, 160,000 light years away, Hubble has delivered some of the best views of planetary nebulae in another galaxy. Images of small green and purple galaxies. Text, these nebulae are 50 times farther away than the ones we study in our own galaxy.
Like those in our galaxy, these planetary nebulae show a range of shapes, bipolar, round, complex, elliptical.
Unlike planetaries in our galaxy, these are all about the same distance from us.
Because of this, astronomers can directly compare the size and brightness of these planetary nebulae.
With these observations, Hubble helps us better understand how planetary nebulae form and evolve.