Ring Nebula Is The Grand Prismatic Spring Of Wyoming's Summer Skies

The Ring Nebula, also known as Messier 57, is the Grand Prismatic Spring of the cosmos. Located in the constellation Lyra, it's one of the most colorful celestial sights in the night skies over Wyoming this summer.

AR
Andrew Rossi

July 04, 20244 min read

M57, or the Ring Nebula, is a planetary nebula, the glowing remains of a sun-like star. The tiny white dot in the center of the nebula is the star’s hot core, called a white dwarf.
M57, or the Ring Nebula, is a planetary nebula, the glowing remains of a sun-like star. The tiny white dot in the center of the nebula is the star’s hot core, called a white dwarf. (NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage/Hubble Collaboration)

The Ring Nebula, also known as Messier 57, is the Grand Prismatic Spring of the cosmos. Located in the constellation Lyra, it's one of the most colorful celestial sights in the night skies over Wyoming this summer.

Explosive fireworks displays dominate the skies over the United States after sunset on the Fourth of July. For anyone still looking upward when the skies fall silent, the Ring Nebula will be putting on its own colorful display.

"I was actually just looking at it last night and convinced myself that I saw a hint of green," said Max Gilbraith, planetarium coordinator for the University of Wyoming Physics and Astronomy Department. "It's one of my all-time favorite summer objects to observe."

Nebulous Nebulas

The astronomical term "nebula" is pretty nebulous.

Gilbratih said the definition applies to "any diffuse nonpoint of light" in the night sky, which covers a broad spectrum of things.

"Anything besides a star was a nebula to early astronomers," he said. "They can be stellar nurseries, clouds of gas leftover from exploded stars, interstellar dust being illuminated by stars around it, and so on."

Gilbraith noted that when it was first discovered, the Andromeda Galaxy was called the Andromeda Nebula. There's an immense difference between galaxies and nebulas, and more observation is needed to correct the discrepancy.

The Ring Nebula is classified as a planetary nebula. It is the remains of a sun-like star that shines its own light through cloud of gases from the collapsed star's outer layers.

That light and those gases create the spectacular colors seen in high-quality images of the nebula.

According to NASA, the deep blue color in the center of the Ring Nebula comes from helium, the light blue color of the inner ring is the glow of hydrogen and oxygen, and the outer ring's reddish hues are nitrogen and sulfur.

Amateur astronomers will need a few tricks to see the colorful spectrum of the Ring Nebula, and they'll have to find it first.

Watch on YouTube

Where And When

The Ring Nebula is visible every summer in the Northern Hemisphere. Gilbraith said its position over the Earth's north pole means the planetary nebula stays in the night sky long and sticks around all summer.

"It's already up when the sun sets, and it stays up all night," he said. "Because it's a very northerly object, the sun will rise again before it sets."

The Ring Nebula is in the small constellation Lyra, directly above the much larger constellation Cygnus the Swan. Its apparent magnitude is 8.8, meaning it's just outside the realm where it's bright enough to be seen by the naked eye.

That's part of the reason Gilbraith said it's hard to see the Ring Nebula's spectacular colors while viewing it. To see color, observers will need to employ some astrophotography skills.

"To really get the colors to come out, you want a longer exposure," he said. "Many phones have a little night mode, and if you have a stable setup, you can take a 3- or 5-second exposure with the phone, and a little bit of that color could pop out.

“Astrophotographers might take a 25- or 32-second exposure while tracking it across the sky to get all the colors."

The human eye can be tricky. Even Gilbraith can be tricked into thinking he's caught a glimpse of color when gazing at the Ring Nebula.

"Our eyes don't process color and low light conditions that well," he said. "We've convinced ourselves that we see a spot of color here and there, but that's how most human vision works."

For First-Timers

Among all the amazing things to see in the night sky, Gilbraith categorized the Ring Nebula as a great starter for amateur astronomers.

"It's one of the fun objects to find with a telescope or binoculars when you're getting started," he said. "Most people can find pretty early in the night."

To find the Ring Nebula, Gilbraith said amateurs should head outside around 10 p.m. and find the trapezoid-shaped constellation Lyra directly above the upside-down cross of Cygnus. The Ring Nebula is right between the bottom two stars.

"It's perfectly spaced between the bottom two stars in the trapezoid, so you don't need too much computer guidance to find it," he said. "You need a little bit of light amplification, not just magnification to see it, and it is pretty small.

“But if you know the shape and figures of the constellations, the Ring Nebula is one of those fun first things to be able to try and find in Wyoming's night sky."

Andrew Rossi can be reached at arossi@cowboystatedaily.com.

Share this article

Authors

AR

Andrew Rossi

Features Reporter

Andrew Rossi is a features reporter for Cowboy State Daily based in northwest Wyoming. He covers everything from horrible weather and giant pumpkins to dinosaurs, astronomy, and the eccentricities of Yellowstone National Park.