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Nebulas: The scenic space clouds that give birth to the sky's stars

Glowing huge nebula with young stars.
Peter Jurik
Stock Adobe
Glowing huge nebula with young stars.

Interstellar — you may already be familiar with that word even if it’s only from the 2014 film. The word interstellar actually means the space between stars, and in that space is where you’ll find nebulas.

Nebulas are colorful, gorgeous clouds that are capable of giving birth to stars. You may have seen pictures of nebulas on a phone case or on clothing. But why do they look so cool, and what are they made of? Jean Creighton, the director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at UW-Milwaukee who also serves as the Lake Effect astronomy contributor, sheds some light on the subject.

"Well, most of the clouds are made of similar things [as atmospheric clouds] because, you know, there's the same, same recipes in the universe," explains Creighton. Specifically, hydrogen, helium and the other common elements from the periodic table make up these nebulas.

Creighton details the five different types of the nebula: reflection, emission, planetary, supernova remnants, and absorption. And while the widely circulated images of the nebula are often stunning, they're also not entirely accurate depictions.

"So usually, what happens is scientists take pictures of a particular object in multiple filters because those multiple different kinds of light tell us about the properties," says Creighton. "You get a very, I would say, prosaic orangey brown. Not very interesting, right? So, what they do is they shift the color that you would see to a color that combined looks good."

If you want to learn more, the planetarium will be having a ticketed event called Colorful Nebulason December 15th. There will also be a free rooftop stargazing event right after the nebula program.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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