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Planetary Nebula, Misnamed But Not Misunderstood
Planetary Nebula Archive

  • A new collection of planetary nebulas, containing X-rays from Chandra and optical light from Hubble, is available.

  • A planetary nebula is a phase that stars like our Sun experience after they use up much of their fuel.

  • “Planetary nebula” is a misnomer stemming from the 19th century and their resemblance to planets as seen through small telescopes.

  • The planetary nebulas in this collection range in distance from about 2,200 to 5,900 light years from Earth.

Sometimes the names of objects are deeply misleading. For example, starfish are not actually fish (they are echinoderms) and guinea pigs are not related to pigs in any way (they are rodents). Similarly, planetary nebulas have nothing to do with planets. They were misnamed when scientists looking through small telescopes in the 19th century thought that these objects looked like planets.

Today, astronomers know that a planetary nebula actually represents a phase that stars like our Sun experience after they use up much of their fuel. After cooling and expanding through a “red giant” phase when it begins to expel its outer layers, such a star leaves behind a type of dense and smaller star called a white dwarf. The previously jettisoned shells of gas remain for a relatively short time in cosmic terms — tens of thousands of years — before dissipating into space. Meanwhile they are illuminated and energized by the white dwarf at the center of the system. This will happen to our Sun, but not for another 5 billion years or so.

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory contributes to the understanding of planetary nebulas by studying the hottest and most energetic processes still at work in these beautiful objects. X-ray data from Chandra reveal winds being driven away from the white dwarf so quickly (i.e., millions of miles per hour) that they create shock waves during collisions with slower-moving material previously ejected by the star. Chandra’s exceptional vision in X-rays contributes to the understanding of this brief, yet important, stage of stars’ lives.

This gallery contains a half a dozen planetary nebulas that have been observed both by Chandra and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, with the latter detecting the delicate-looking structures of gas that have been expelled from the star. The colors of the Chandra data in the six planetary nebulas have been selected so that the X-rays are clearly distinct from the optical data. The list of planetary nebulas and the colors used for the Chandra data are as follows: NGC 6302 (magenta), IC 418 (cyan), NGC 3242 (blue), NGC 7662 (blue), NGC 7027 (magenta), and NGC 2371 (purple). The planetary nebulas range in distances from about 2,200 to 5,700 light years from Earth.

While all six nebulas originated from similar physical conditions and evolved by similar processes, they currently appear somewhat different from others. The differences in the shapes and structures of these planetary nebulas may be due to the complexities of a slew of physical properties including how much of the star’s winds flow from its poles, whether the star wobbles (or “precesses”) as it spins, if the star has a companion or not, and other factors.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Chandra X-ray Center controls science from Cambridge Massachusetts and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts.

 

Fast Facts for NGC 6302:
Credit:   X-ray: NASA/CXC/RIT/J.Kastner; Optical: NASA/ESA/AURA/STScI
Release Date:  December 6, 2021
Scale:  Image is about 2.25 arcmin (2.2 light years) across
Category  White Dwarfs & Planetary Nebulas
Coordinates (J2000):   RA 17h 13m 44.21s | -37° 06" 15.94'
Constellation:  Scorpius
Observation Dates:  2 observations on April 26, 2013
Observation Time:  8 hours 19 minutes
Obs. IDs:  12370, 14364
Instrument:  ACIS
Color Code:  X-ray: purple; Optical: red, green, blue
Distance Estimate:  About 3,400 light years
Optical
X-ray
distance arrow

 

Fast Facts for IC 418:
Credit:  X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/ESA/AURA/STScI
Release Date:  December 6, 2021
Scale:  Image is about 20 arcsec (0.37 light years) across
Category:  White Dwarfs & Planetary Nebulas
Coordinates (J2000):  RA 5h 27m 28.2s | Dec -12° 41' 50.2"
Constellation:  Lepus
Observation Dates:  December 12, 2006
Observation Time:  13 hours 51 minutes
Obs. IDs:  7440
Instrument:  ACIS
Color Code:  X-ray: cyan; Optical: red, green, blue
Distance Estimate  About 3,900 light years
Optical
X-ray
distance arrow

 

Facts for NGC 3242:
Credit:   X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI/Univ. Washington, B.Balick
Release Date:  December 6, 2021
Scale:  Image is about 25 arcsec (0.26 light years) across
Category:  White Dwarfs & Planetary Nebulas
Coordinates (J2000):  RA 10h 24m 46.1s | Dec -18° 38" 32.6'
Constellation:  Hydra
Observation Dates:  February 28, 2011
Observation Time:  8 hours 8 minutes
Obs. IDs:  12380
Instrument:  ACIS
Color Code:  X-ray: dark blue; Optical: red, green, blue
Distance Estimate  About 2,200 light years
Optical
X-ray
distance arrow

 

Facts for NGC 7662:
Credit:   X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/ESA/AURA/STScI
Release Date:  December 6, 2021
Scale:  Image is about 0.56 arcmin (0.63 light years) across
Category:  White Dwarfs & Planetary Nebulas
Coordinates (J2000):  RA 23h 25m 53.77s | Dec +42° 32' 5.99"
Constellation:  Andromeda
Observation Dates:  May 15, 2012
Observation Time:  7 hours 40 minutes
Obs. IDs:  12373
Instrument:  ACIS
Color Code:  X-ray: dark blue; Optical: red, green, blue
Distance Estimate  About 3,900 light years
Optical
X-ray
distance arrow

 

Facts for NGC 7027:
Credit:   X-ray: NASA/CXC/RIT/J. Kastner; Optical: NASA/ESA/AURA/STScI
Release Date:  December 6, 2021
Scale:  Image is about 1.16 arcmin (1 light year) across
Category:  White Dwarfs & Planetary Nebulas
Coordinates (J2000):  RA 21h 07m 0.7s | Dec +42° 14' 11"
Constellation:  Cygnus
Observation Dates:  June, 1, 2000 & March 21, 2013
Observation Time:  21 hours 30 minutes
Obs. IDs:  588, 15736
Instrument:  ACIS
Color Code:  X-ray: purple; Optical: red, green, blue
Distance Estimate  About 2,900 light years
Optical
X-ray
distance arrow

 

Facts for NGC 2371:
Credit:  X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/ESA/AURA/STScI
Release Date:  December 6, 2021
Scale:  Image is 1.3 arcmin (2.2 light years) across
Category:  White Dwarfs & Planetary Nebulas
Coordinates (J2000):  RA 7h 25m 33.83s | Dec +29° 29' 39.2"
Constellation:  Gemini
Observation Dates:  January 30, 2012
Observation Time:  8 hours 24 minutes
Obs. IDs:  12367
Instrument:  ACIS
Color Code:  X-ray: purple; Optical: red, green, blue
Distance Estimate  About 5,700 light years
Optical
X-ray
distance arrow
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