Credit: Vincent Peris, Jack Harvey, Steve Mazlin, Jose Luis Lamadrid, Ana Guijarro, RECTA, and DSA.
Gazing at the Ring Nebula
Last night marked College of Charleston’s first observatory open house of the fall semester. On the rooftop, the Rita Liddy Hollings Science Center has an observing deck and observatory. CofC advertises the event in local papers so a surprising number of people showed up. The tally for the observing deck totaled 238! We first visited the deck and looked through three different telescopes to see the Moon, Antares, and Albireo. Then it took about a 30-minute wait for the observatory because only ten people at a time can fit inside the rounded room. So we waited at the door next to a timid, astrophysics student in charge of the count.
Once we were next in queue, our group entered the base of the spiral stairwell. Dr. James Neff, professor of physics and astronomy, introduced the subject of our gaze as the Ring Nebula (aka M57), calling it a “faint, whitish-grayish smoke ring” and “a big chunk of carbon.” But our naked eye can’t see the vibrant colors documented in photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope. We would only see through the lens something resembling a blurry black-and-white donut.
Dr. Neff also explained, “Every element, every atom in your body came from one of these nebulas.” Remember: we’re all made of stardust.
I wanted to know how far away it was. He answered, “It’s not real far away. A few hundred light years, I guess.” From A quick iPhone search, it turns out the Ring Nebula is approximately 2,300 light years from Earth, making it 6000 - 8000 years old. The farthest I’ve seen is Jupiter through my Celestron telescope!
It looked to me like a tiny, bluish bubble floating in space.
M57 in the constellation Lyra is the most looked at and photographed of planetary nebulae seen by telescopes with at least an 8-inch aperture. Yet the Ring Nebula is destined to disappear; its beautiful emissions are cast-offs from a dying star. “Planetary nebulae get more boring as they get older,” said Dr. Neff. “They fade away.”