New View of the Ring Nebula

The Variety of Shapes in Planetary Nebulae

The Ring Nebula in constellation Lyra is also the logo of the Planetarium Software Redshift 7.

The Ring Nebula in constellation Lyra is also the logo of the Planetarium Software Redshift 7.

Many, but not all, planetary nebulae are round or have a ring-like form; some are structured completely differently. The variety of shapes comes from the fact that most stars don’t release their layers evenly, but rather in two different directions. The result is a nebula with a bipolar structure. The Hantel nebula in the fox constellation is an impressive example of such a bipolar planetary nebula. The Ring Nebula probably has a bipolar structure too, but since the axis of symmetry points almost directly toward Earth, it appears to us as a ring.

Through an amateur telescope the Ring Nebula is one of the prettiest deep-sky-objects in the heavens. Of course one cannot see it as it looks in the photograph – the outer halo is far too faint for the eye to see and instead of showing its full variety of color the nebula appears as pale, smoky spots. Yet it is for many amateur astronomers a true gem. The oval ring structure can even be seen through small telescopes.

Of course one must first know where to find the Ring Nebula in the night sky. With a planetarium program like Redshift, that’s no problem. The Ring Nebula is located in the small constellation Lyra, whose main star Vega is the brightest member of the so-called summer triangle. It is midway between Sulafat and Sheliak, the lower two corners of the Lyra rectangle. One can recognize it with just a wide angle eyepiece, as it is slightly diffuse compared to the stars. Right now the Ring Nebula is a fascinating object in the early evening sky.

Jan Hattenbach works as a physicist and science journalist in Aachen. Translated by Beth Field.
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