Are planetary nebulae made by supernovae?

We find out if these beautiful structures are made by the titanic explosion of massive stars

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The Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) is a large planetary nebula (PN) located in the constellation Aquarius. Image Credit: NASA

The Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) is a large planetary nebula (PN) located in the constellation Aquarius. Image Credit: NASA

Asked by Jamie Clews

Planetary nebulae are not made by supernovae. A planetary nebula is born when a low-mass star (less than around eight times the mass of the Sun) dies, while a supernova is the result of the death of a massive star.

The low-mass stars that make planetary nebulae puff off their outer envelopes when they run out of fuel, leaving behind their hot cores that astronomers refer to as white dwarfs. Over time, the envelope expands away from the central star to make the stunning nebulae that we see in images brought back by the likes of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

Supernovae are made in an entirely different way. The heavy stars that make them build iron using their elements. When these stars are no longer able to make iron, the star collapses – sending the shock waves associated with the titanic explosion of a supernova.

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