Tuesday, December 18, 2012

One Ring Nebula to Rule Them All

Today I have something besides another globular cluster picture for your perusal. It's a picture of a nebula fairly famous in astronomical circles that I've seen prob-ably hundreds of times in the telescope (it's a popular target during the summer) but have never actually imaged before.

Perhaps it's appropriate that I have this picture less than a week after The Hobbit came out, as this object, Messier 57, is popularly known as the Ring Nebula. It's a small planetary nebula (small on the sky, not physically) found in the constellation Lyra, the Lyre, best seen during the summer and autumn. When I say small, it's only about 1.5 by 1 arc-minutes in diameter; compare that with Messier 55 from my last post, at 19 arc-minutes across. I've therefore cropped out the central region for easier viewing.

Messier 57, the Ring Nebula, in Lyra, at 100% resolution from the camera.
The Ring Nebula is about 2,300 light-years from Earth, and is currently about two and a half light-years across. Measurements of its expansion rate suggest that it has been expanding for about \(1,610\pm240\) years.

The processes forming the Ring Nebula have to do with the life cycles of stars. When stars about the mass of the Sun exhaust the hydrogen in their cores, they go through a complex process of fusing the helium produced by hydrogen fusion into heavier elements, then those into heavier elements, up the periodic table till they get stuck at carbon, having insufficient mass to fuse it to anything higher. During this time, due to other concurrent processes, their atmospheres swell up to become hundreds of times larger than before. As the star runs out of fusible material in its interior it gradually loses its grip on its outer atmosphere which puffs off into space, and which would have been observed starting sometime between A.D. 250 and A.D. 670.

This escaped atmosphere is what we're actually seeing when we look at the Ring Nebula. The core of the progenitor star has contracted down to a small white dwarf of mostly carbon about the size of Earth, but containing about the mass of the Sun. It currently has a temperature of about 125,000 K (~225,000 \(^\circ\)F) and lights up the surrounding atmosphere like a beacon as it blows away. The white dwarf at the center of the Ring Nebula is too faint to be seen in this picture, but is estimated to weigh about 20% more than the Sun currently does.

One of the reasons that I haven't had a picture of this famous (and not un-photo-genic) nebula up before, is because I'd already taken a picture of it...sorta. Sometime during the summer of 2010, I think, I tried imaging it using the narrow-band filters on the imager. Unfortunately, the night I chose had some very thin, high clouds, and I quickly learned that just because a star is bright enough over the entire visible light spectrum to serve as a guide star, does not mean it will be bright enough when you are only looking at the minuscule fraction of its light that comes through a narrow-band filter. Basically, it lost tracking during the exposure, the resulting picture was ruined, and I just never got around to imaging it again, there being plenty of other objects in the summer and autumn sky to keep me busy. This September I finally got around to imaging it and I'm glad I did, for completeness' sake if nothing else.


  1. Looks so beautiful. More pictures of this nebula, please. And Thor's Helmet too!

    Have you watched The Hobbit yet?

  2. Well, you'll have to wait for summer for more of the Ring Nebula, as that's when it's highest in the sky. =) You might be interested to know that the postcard that the UAC made with my Thor's Helmet nebula picture on it is now being sold at the VIS.

    No, I haven't seen The Hobbit yet, but I'd like to soon.


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