Nebulae come in all shapes and sizes. Some are pretty plain, some are dazzling when looked at through the right lenses and some are just weird; but what are they?
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Centuries ago, early astronomers would classify almost anything they saw in space as a nebula; even distant galaxies were often called nebulae in the early days, until we started to develop our knowledge of the universe and understand how nebulae work. The word nebula itself comes from the Latin word for cloud, but nebulae are more than just clouds of dust, hydrogen and helium gas, and plasma; they’re stellar nurseries. Planets are formed within nebulae.
So space isn’t a total vacuum. We know that it’s actually made from gas and dust particles, often referred to as Interstellar Medium. Most of the Interstellar Medium comes in the form of gas consisting of neutral atoms and molecules. The gas is unimaginably dilute compared to Earth, but can over long distances of time, build up to a point where it can coalesce and collapse to create stars and planetary systems.
Here are my favourites:
The Waterfall Nebula (HH-222)
The Waterfall Nebula is located 1,500 light-years away, making up part of the Orion Molecular Cloud. Its official designation is HH-222. We haven’t completely figured out why the nebula is shaped the way it is, but many theories have been looked at. Some think that the unusual radio source within the Waterfall Nebula originates from a binary system containing a hot white dwarf star, a neutron star, or black hole, and that the Waterfall is just a jet from this crazy system. Either way, she is a beauty.
The Necklace Nebula (PNG054.2-03.4)
It wouldn’t take an expert astronomer to understand why they called it the Necklace Nebula. Its official designation is PN G054.2-03.4, but the nickname sounds much better. The false color image below was created by Hubble to highlight the different gasses contained within the nebula. The blue gas is representative of hydrogen, green is oxygen, while the small red portions show nitrogen.
The Calabash Nebula (OH 231.84)
Officially known as OH 231.84, or more memorably known as the rotten egg nebula, The Calabash Nebula is a proto-planetary nebula residing around 5,000 light-years away from us. It lies in the Messier 46 open cluster, which is among constellation of Puppis. The reason they call it the Rotten Egg nebula is due to the unusually high levels of sulfur compounds contained within it. If you could smell space, you’d probably find it pretty disgusting around here.
Some say that Barnard 163 looks like a duck landing in water. Well instead of laying eggs, this duck would be laying planets. I think it looks like a rip in space, somewhere that they forgot to put anything. The insides of this nebula are thought to be colder than the exterior, meaning gasses could clump together and eventually form stars. We won’t know for some time though, as the nebula lies around 3000 light-years away and would prove challenging to reach.
The Ghost Nebula (VDB 141)
With so many beautifully crazy nebulae to choose from, it was certainly a hard choice. But, as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and there is no right or wrong answer. If I had to choose my favorite, I’d go for this one. One look at this formation is enough to make you understand why they named it so. The Ghost Nebula is a reflection nebula that has stars embedded within itself. This is probably what gives the region its spooky color. Numerous Bok globules are also present, where dust and gas is condensing to form protostars. Another nebula, LDN 1435, lies right next to VDB 141 and can be seen in many images. The Ghost Nebula shouldn’t be mixed up with the Little Ghost Nebula (NGC 6369) or even the Ghost Head Nebula (NGC 2080).
Red Square Nebula
Cats Eye Nebula
Cats Paw Nebula