Planetary Nebula Lesson for Kids: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Suzanne Rose

Suzanne has taught all levels PK-graduate school and has a PhD in Instructional Systems Design. She currently teachers literacy courses to preservice and inservice teachers.

What would you say if I told you that a planetary nebula has nothing to do with a planet? In this lesson, find out what they really are and how they got such a confusing name!

What's in a Name?

Have you ever noticed that sometimes the names we use for things don't make much sense? For example, a ship carries cargo, but a car carries a shipment! When the astronomer William Herschel named planetary nebula, he didn't mean to confuse us, but he did. When he first saw one, Herschel thought it looked like a planet because it was round. He'd just discovered the planet Uranus, which was a bluish-green color, and thought that the planetary nebulae looked a lot like Uranus. But believe it or not, a planetary nebula has nothing to do with planets! Let's find out what it really is.

Exploding Stars

Stars, like our Sun, are made of very hot gases. These stars produce energy for billions of years by changing hydrogen gas into helium gas. When a star begins to run out of hydrogen, it starts to change. Its center, or core, becomes smaller. Then the star expands to over 100 times its original size. When that happens, the star is called a red giant.

A red giant on its way to becoming a planetary nebula.

Next, the outer part of the gases that surround the red giant begin to move away from it. While this happens, the star becomes much hotter. It sends a stream of very fast-moving particles into space. These particles are moving up to 6 million miles per hour! It also sends out ultraviolet rays. The particles, the gases around the star, and the ultraviolet rays all combine together to form what we call the planetary nebula. So, basically, a planetary nebula is a big ball of gases, similar to a shell, surrounding a dying star.

Some Facts About Planetary Nebula

Here are some interesting facts about planetary nebula:

  • Instead of adding an ''s'' on the end of nebula to make it plural, you need to add the letter ''e.'' More than one nebula are called nebulae.
  • Scientists believe that our Sun will develop into a planetary nebula in about five billion years.
  • While scientists think there are about 10,000 planetary nebulae in our Milky Way Galaxy, only about 1,500 of them have been found.
  • The Dumbbell Nebula was the first planetary nebula to be discovered. Astronomer Charles Messier first saw it in 1764.

Gases in the Dumbbell Nebula

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