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Nebula

Milky Way galaxy, constellation Lyra, Horsehead Nebula, Ring Nebula, dark mass

Nebula, in astronomy, a localized conglomerate of the gaseous and finely divided dust particles that are spread throughout interstellar space. Before the invention of the telescope, the term nebula (Latin, “cloud”) was applied to all celestial objects of a diffuse appearance. As a result, many objects now known to be star clusters or galaxies were called nebulas.

Nebulas exist within other galaxies as well as in our own Milky Way galaxy. They are classified as planetary nebulas, supernova remnants, and diffuse nebulas, including reflecting, emission, and dark nebulas. Small, very bright nebulas known as Herbig-Haro objects are found in dense interstellar clouds, and are probably the products of gas jets expelled by new stars in the process of formation.

Planetary nebulas, or planetaries, are so called because many of them superficially resemble planets through telescopes. They are actually shells of material that an old average star sheds during a late, red giant stage in its evolution, before becoming a white dwarf. The Ring Nebula of the constellation Lyra, a typical planetary, has a rotational period of 132,900 years and a mass calculated to be about 14 times that of the earth’s sun. Several thousand planetaries have been discovered in the Milky Way. More spectacular but fewer in number are nebulas that are the fragments of supernova explosions, perhaps the most famous of which is the Crab Nebula in Taurus, now fading at the rate of about 0.4 percent per year. Nebulas of this kind are strong emitters of radio waves, as a result of the explosions that formed them and the probable pulsar remnants of the original star.

Diffuse nebulas are extremely large structures, often many light-years wide, that have no definite outline and a tenuous, cloudlike appearance. They are either luminous or dark. The former shine as a result of the light of neighboring stars. They include some of the most striking objects in the sky, such as the Orion Nebula in Orion (the middle “star” in the sword). The tremendous streams of matter in the diffuse nebulas are intermingled in violent, chaotic currents. Many thousands of luminous nebulas are known. Spectral studies show that light emanating from them consists of reflected light from stars and also, in so-called emission nebulas, of stimulated radiation of ionized gases and dust from the nebulas themselves.

Dark, diffuse nebulas are observed as nonluminous clouds or faintly luminous, obscuring portions of the Milky Way and too distant from the stimulation of neighboring stars to reflect or emit much light of their own. One of the most famous dark nebulas is the Horsehead Nebula in Orion, so named for the silhouette of the dark mass in front of a more luminous nebular region. The longest dark rift observed on photographic plates of the star clouds of the Milky Way is a succession of dark nebulas. Both dark nebulas and luminous nebulas are considered likely sites for the processes of dust-cloud condensation and the formation of new stars.



Article key phrases:

Milky Way galaxy, constellation Lyra, Horsehead Nebula, Ring Nebula, dark mass, nebulas, Orion Nebula, supernova remnants, Crab Nebula, white dwarf, star clusters, interstellar space, celestial objects, sky, new stars, reflected light, dust particles, astronomy, galaxies, dust, original star, Milky Way, result, Taurus, silhouette, Orion, telescope, planets, telescopes, invention, sword, emission, light-years, evolution, portions, shine, cloud, earth, sun, percent, kind, dark, rate, times, number, sites, years

 
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