No two snowflakes are alike, as the saying goes. The same is true of planetary nebulae, the dazzling, luminous clouds of gas and dust that form when dying stars puff off their outer layers. These massive clouds are heated from within by ultraviolet radiation from the dead star’s core, causing them to glow in all the colors of the rainbow.
The vagaries of stellar winds, magnetic fields and more combine to create an array of unique planetary nebulae shapes and colors. Observing planetary nebulae is a special experience every time. (As you may have guessed, planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets — the name stems from early astronomical observations.)
Read on for some of the best planetary nebulae currently visible!
The Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) is commonly called the “Eye of God” or the “Eye of Sauron,” and it’s not hard to see why. This colorful nebula lies 650 light years away in the constellation Aquarius, making it the closest nebula to us.
The glowing Ring Nebula (M57) was discovered by Charles Messier while searching for comets in 1779. Tilted face-on to observers on Earth, the nebula appears elliptical in shape.
The Dumbbell Nebula (M27) was the first planetary nebula to be discovered, by Messier in 1764. Like many planetary nebulae, this apple core-shaped nebula features areas called knots, which are regions of denser gas and dust.
Little Ring Nebula
Also known as NGC 6781, this planetary nebula appears like a cosmic bubble. The Little Ring Nebula sits a few thousand light years away in the constellation Aquila.
Discovered by William Hershel in 1787, the Saturn Nebula (NGC 7009) appears uncannily like our sixth planet when seen edge-on. The nebula has a complex shape, with multiple regions of dust interacting to produce an intricate, elliptical structure.
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Clear skies! 🔭