Spotting Planetary Nebulae

Viewing the cosmos through a telescope can be quite amazing. There are many objects floating around in deep space worth taking a look at, and among the most beautiful and colorful are planetary nebulae. While they usually appear small in telescopes compared to other types of nebulae, they’re still worth taking the time to find and view.

Planetary nebulae got their name because they are generally round in appearance and resemble planets. However, the name is misleading. Most planetary nebulae are usually formed when dying stars begin to shed their outer layers near the end of their lives. They can be quite pretty, with layers of colors from the different gasses that were shed from the dying star. Due to their size and relative lack of brightness, they can be tricky to find. Using a larger diameter telescope under dark skies will help greatly. Also, by using an O-III or a UHC filter on your eyepieces, you can coax some more details out of planetary nebulae (and generally, any nebulae) when viewing. Let’s have a look at some of the more prominent and easy-to-find planetary nebulae…

M27 Dumbbell Nebula

First up, there is the M27 Dumbbell Nebula, which was the first planetary nebula discovered. Located in the constellation Vulpecula, it lies close to the tip of the arrow of the constellation Sagitta (near Cygnus). It lies around 1,300 light years from Earth, and has a “dumbbell” shape appearance through a telescope. This nebula is fairly bright, and should even be visible in binoculars. As it is fairly bright, try using more magnification while viewing M27.

M57 Ring Nebula

Next, there is the M57 Ring Nebula. One of the more unique sights in the cosmos, M57 is another reasonably bright nebula. Located in between the second and third brightest stars of the constellation Lyra, it’s also easy to find. Although it can be spotted with binoculars, its small size means that you will need at least 30x-40x to notice that it isn’t just another star. M57 is around 2,300 light years away from Earth. As the name suggests, M57 appears like a cloud-like ring with a hollow center. With a 10 inch telescope (or even an 8 inch under very dark skies and ideal viewing conditions), you may be able to spot the dim star at the center. Without using a filter, you may also be able to make out some slight colors, such as red and green. M57 holds up fairly well under higher magnifications, as long as you use a larger telescope.

M97 Owl Nebula

The M97 Owl Nebula is slightly more challenging to find. Located near the bottom right star of the “bowl” of the Big Dipper, this nebula is more dim than the others. It is approximately 2,000 light years away and gets its name because there are two dark spots which makes the nebula look like an owl’s head. Because it is dim, you will need to view under lower magnification. Take a good lengthy look through your telescope and see if you can see the dark “owl” eyes.

M76 Little Dumbbell Nebula

One of the hardest and most dim Messier objects to find is the M76 Little Dumbbell Nebula. Located in the constellation Perseus (almost directly beneath the bottom left point of the “W” of Cassiopeia), this nebula is pretty small and very dim. It gets its name due to its resemblance to the M27 Dumbbell Nebula, and is thought to be similar to the M57 Ring Nebula, except viewed from the side. M76 is best viewed under very dark skies, with larger telescopes and moderate magnification. Even being quite dim, see if you can spot its dumbbell shape as well.

NGC-6210 planetary nebula

Another challenge for the adventurous skywatcher is the NGC-6210 planetary nebula. Located around 6,300 light years away in the constellation Hercules, this nebula is a challenge due to its very small size. Thankfully, it’s bright enough to withstand as much magnification as your telescope can probably handle. Even with no filters, this nebula has a beautiful blue-green color. Look closely and you can probably spot the star at the center of this nebula. This is a tricky nebula to find, but well worth the effort!

Planetary nebulae are very unique in appearance, and can be quite beautiful to view. Although dark skies and larger telescopes are a big plus when trying to spot them, planetary nebulae can be found and appreciated by stargazers of any level. Next time you’re viewing the wonders of the night sky, be sure to check out these stars in their death throes and the beauty that they contain!

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