Are planetary nebulae the result of supernovae? (Intermediate)

No, they are two entirely different things. A planetary nebula is born when a low mass star dies (low mass means less than about 8 times the mass of the Sun), while the supernova is the death of a massive star.

In low mass stars, the outer envelope of the star is ejected out while the core of the star becomes a "white dwarf". The ejected envelope expands away from the central star and creates the nebula that we see. So, if you look at the pictures of classic planetary nebulae like the Ring nebula, you will be a ring of material with a star in the center. The ring of material was once part of the star in the center, but now has been ejected. The central star is now a white dwarf.

In high mass stars, the story is entirely different. Nuclear fusion in the core produces elements all the way to iron. Once the mass of the iron core exceeds a certain threshold, it collapses causing shock waves to propagate outwards. The end result is the titanic explosion called the supernova, leaving behind a neutron star or a black hole. The exploded remains of the star form a "supernova remnant". Examples are the Crab nebula (M1 in Taurus) and the Veil nebula in Cygnus. Hence, a supernova produces a supernova remnant and not a planetary nebula.

This page was last updated June 27, 2015.

About the Author

Jagadheep D. Pandian

Jagadheep D. Pandian

Jagadheep built a new receiver for the Arecibo radio telescope that works between 6 and 8 GHz. He studies 6.7 GHz methanol masers in our Galaxy. These masers occur at sites where massive stars are being born. He got his Ph.D from Cornell in January 2007 and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Insitute for Radio Astronomy in Germany. After that, he worked at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii as the Submillimeter Postdoctoral Fellow. Jagadheep is currently at the Indian Institute of Space Scence and Technology.

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