Stellar Nurseries Are Made of Clouds of Dust and Gas Called Nebulae (Singular Is Nebula)

Stellar Nurseries Are Made of Clouds of Dust and Gas Called Nebulae (Singular Is Nebula)

Nebula (vB)


Stellar nurseries are made of clouds of dust and gas called nebulae (singular is nebula). All stars are born out of nebulae -- except in some rare instances when two stars or brown dwarfs merge to form a larger star.

There are two different origins of nebulae. The first origin for material is the universe's creation itself: Soon after its birth, atoms were created in the universe, and it is from these that the first dust and gas clouds formed. This means that the gas and dust that make up this type of nebula were not created in a star, but are the original matter from the beginnings of the universe.

The second kind of nebulae are produced by the supernovas of exploding stars. The matter ejected from them created the Veil and Crab nebulae, as well as many more. Also, keep in mind that the origins of nebulae are not as clear cut as this; a nebula can be a mixture of primordial material as well as new material from previous stars.

Emission Nebulae

Emission nebulae are the most colorful of the five main types of nebulae. They are lit internally from young stars still in their stellar nursery. The different colors are caused by the different gases and the composition of the dust in the nebula. Usually a large telescope (8+ inches) will reveal most of the colors in an emission nebula. To see all of the colors, a long-exposure photograph is usually required.

Pictured to the left is a section of the Eagle Nebula; the Lagoon Nebula is to the left. In the image of the Eagle Nebula, also known as M16, one can see three distinct "pillars" of gas. It took the Hubble Space Telescope to see these pillars, imaged in 1995, and they would not be visible to back-yard astronomers. Inside the pillars are newly-formed stars, whose solar winds are literally blowing away the surrounding gas and dust. The most prominent pillar is about 10 light-years tall and one light-year thick. The full nebula w discovered in 1764, and lies about 7,000 light-years away.

The image of the Lagoon Nebula (M8) is also taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. It lies approximately 5,200 light-years away, and was originally discovered in 1747. The full nebula spans approximately 140x60 light-years, but this is just a small section of it that Hubble imaged.

Reflection Nebulae

Reflection nebulae reflect stars' light - stars from either inside or near the nebula. The Pleiades (pictured to the left) is a good example of a reflection nebula. The stars are thought to have formed at roughly the same time - about 100 million years ago, which would make them about 1/50 the age of our sun. They are currently plowing through the thin, wispy nebula that is seen as blue wisps and glows around the stars (the flares are artifacts of the camera).

An extreme close-up of this nebula is visible in the Hubble Space Telescope image to the left. In the lower left of this image, the nebula is seen, being torn apart by the radiation from the bright stare Merope that is to the upper right and out of the image's field of view. For more information about this image, see Hubble Heritage Gallery Archive - 2000.

Dark Nebulae

In essence, all nebulae are in fact dark, for they produce no visual light of their own. However, when astronomers refer to a "dark nebula," they are speaking of one that blocks the light of something behind it, like a wall, and are thus only visible when they omit light from something behind them (from our line of sight). That is why we cannot see very far into our galaxy in visible light - there are too many lanes of dust and gas (dark nebulae) in the way, so astronomers must rely on other forms of light.

Pictured to the right is the famous Horsehead Nebula, this image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The part that forms the horse's head is the dark nebula, known as Barnard 33. The dark nebula lies in front of the background emission nebula, known as IC 434.

Bridging two categories is the nebula to the left, NGC 1999. The delicate blue and purple form a reflection nebula, while the black, T-shaped object in the center is a foreground dark nebula. For more information on the Horsehead Nebula, see Hubble Heritage Archive - 2001, and for more information on NGC 1999, see Hubble Heritage Archive - 2000.

Planetary Nebulae

Planetary nebulae are created when a main sequence star grows into a red giant and casts off its outer layers. This is how they get their (usually) circular shape, for the material is thrown off the star in a roughly symmetrical manner, as seen in the left picture of The Cat's Eye Nebula (NGC 6543). You can also see the remains of the central star in this image.

In the case of the left image of the Retina Nebula (IC 4406), we are viewing the circular disk on its side, like looking at a doughnut's edge. The star's spin and magnetic fields cause the material to expand in more of a circular disk, rather than in a spherical manner. For more information about this nebula, see Hubble Heritage Gallery - 2002.

The term "planetary" comes from the nineteenth century, when astronomers saw that they looked vaguely like the newly-discovered Uranus and Neptune in their primitive telescopes. (Remember that this was a time before people knew that there were different galaxies.) The name has stuck ever since.

Supernova Remnant

These nebulae are the creations of ancient supernovas - the violent explosions of massive stars at the end of their lives. The most famous example is the Crab Nebula, created by a well-documented supernova on July 4, 1054.

The supernova remnant pictured to the right was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of nebula N132D in the Large Magellanic Cloud - a small, satellite galaxy of the Milky Way.


  1. What do think is meant by the phrase “stellar nursery”?
  2. What are all stars made from?
  3. What do you think most of this gas and dust is made of?
  4. Use the table to describe the two different origins of matter that has created stars in the past.
  1. Use the table to list and describe the 5 types of nebulas discussed here.
  1. The matter that stars today can be created from can contain material from…
  2. What material do you think the first stars were made from?
  3. Based on what you have learned in the past – what material do you think will be found in a star that created today? (Hint: use your chemistry background)

Astronomy: Stars, Galaxies and CosmologyPage 1