Messier 57 – The Ring Nebula

Welcome back to Messier Monday! We continue our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the the Big Ring itself, the planetary nebula known as Messier 57. Enjoy!

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects in the night sky. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, with the purpose of making sure that astronomers did not mistake them for comets. However, this list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to serve a more important function.

One of these objects is known as Messier 57, a planetary nebula that is also known as the Ring Nebula. This object is located about 2,300 light years from Earth in the direction of the Lyra constellation. Because of its proximity to Vega, the brightest star in Lyra and one of the stars that form the Summer Triangle, the nebula is relatively easy to find using binoculars or a small telescope.

What You Are Looking At:

Here you see the remainders of a sun-like star… At one time in its life, it may have had twice the mass of Sol, but now all that’s left is a white dwarf that burns over 100,000 degrees kelvin. Surrounding it is an envelope about 2 to 3 light years in size of what once was its outer layers – blown away in a cylindrical shape some 6000 to 8000 years ago. Like looking down the barrel of a smoking gun, we’re looking back in time at the end of a Mira-like star’s evolutionary phase.

It’s called a planetary nebula, because once upon a time before telescopes could resolve them, they appeared almost planet-like. But, as for M57, the central star itself is no larger than a terrestrial planet! The tiny white dwarf star, although it could be as much as 2300 light years away, has an intrinsic brightness of about 50 to 100 times that of our Sun.

One of the most beautiful features of M57 is the structure in the ring itself, sometimes called braiding – but scientifically known as “knots” in the gaseous structure. As C.R. O’Dell (et al) indicated in their 2003 study:

“We have studied the closest bright planetary nebulae with the Hubble Space Telescope’s WFPC2 in order to characterize the dense knots already known to exist in NGC 7293. We find knots in all of the objects, arguing that knots are common, simply not always observed because of distance. The knots appear to form early in the life cycle of the nebula, probably being formed by an instability mechanism operating at the nebula’s ionization front. As the front passes through the knots they are exposed to the photoionizing radiation field of the central star, causing them to be modified in their appearance. This would then explain as evolution the difference of appearance like the lacy filaments seen only in extinction in IC 4406 on the one extreme and the highly symmetric “cometary” knots seen in NGC 7293. The intermediate form knots seen in NGC 2392, NGC 6720, and NGC 6853 would then represent intermediate phases of this evolution.”

However, examining things like planetaries nebulae in different wavelengths of light can tell us so much more about them. Behold the beauty when see through the Spitzer Space Telescope! As M.M. Roth explained in a 2007 study:

“Emission nebulae like H II regions, Planetary Nebulae, Novae, Herbig Haro objects etc. are found as extended objects in the Milky Way, but also as point sources in other galaxies, where they are sometimes observable out to very large distances due to the high contrast provided by some prominent emission lines. It is shown how 3D spectroscopy can be used as a powerful tool for observations of both large resolved emission nebulae and distant extragalactic objects, with special emphasis on faint detection limits.”

History of Observation:

This deep space object was first discovered in early January 1779 by Antoine Darquier who wrote in his notes:

“This nebula, to my knowledge, has not yet been noticed by any astronomer. One can only see it with a very good telescope, it is not resembling any of those [nebula] already known; it has the apparent dimension of Jupiter, is perfectly round and sharply limited; its dull glow resembles the dark part of the Moon before the first and after the last quarter. Meanwhile, the center appears a bit less pale than the remaining part of its surface.”

Although Darquier did not post a date, it is believed his observation preceded Messier’s independent recovery made on January 31, 1779 when he states that Darquier picked it up before him:

“A cluster of light between Gamma and Beta Lyrae, discovered when looking for the Comet of 1779, which has passed it very close: it seems that this patch of light, which is round, must be composed of very small stars: with the best telescopes it is impossible to distinguish them; there stays only a suspicion that they are there. M. Messier reported this patch of light on the Chart of the Comet of 1779. M. Darquier, at Toulouse, discovered it when observing the same comet, and he reports: ‘Nebula between gamma and beta Lyrae; it is very dull, but perfectly outlined; it is as large as Jupiter and resembles a planet which is fading’.”

A few years later, Sir William Herschel would also observe Messier Object 57 with his superior telescope and in his private notes he writes:

“Among the curiosities of the heavens should be placed a nebula, that has a regular, concentric, dark spot in the middle, and is probably a Ring of stars. It is of an oval shape, the shorter axis being to the longer as about 83 to 100; so that, if the stars form a circle, its inclination to a line drawn from the sun to the center of this nebula must be about 56 degrees. The light is of the resolvable kind [i.e., mottled], and in the northern side three very faint stars may be seen, as also one or two in the southern part. The vertices of the longer axis seem less bright and not so well defined as the rest. There are several small stars very bear, but none seems to belong to it.”

Admiral Smyth would go on in later years to add his own detailed observations to history’s records:

“This annular nebula, between Beta and Gamma on the cross-piece of the Lyre, forms the apex of a triangle which it makes with two stars of the 9th magnitude; and its form is that of an elliptic ring, the major axis of which trends sp to nf [SW to NE]. This wonderful object seems to have been noted by Darquier, in 1779; but neither he nor his contemporaries, Messier and Méchain, discerned its real form, seeing in this aureola of glory only “a mass of light in the form of a planetary disc, very dingy in colour.”

“Sir W. Herschel called it a perforated resolvable nebula, and justly ranked it among the curiosities of the heavens. He considered the vertices of the longer axis less bright and not so well defined as the rest; and he afterwards added: ‘By the observations of the 20-feet telescope, the profundity of the stars, of which it probably consists, must be of a higher than the 900th order, perhaps 950.'”

“This is a vast view of the ample and inconceivable dimensions of the spaces of the Universe; and if the oft-cited cannon-ball, flying with the uniform velocity of 500 miles an hour, would require millions of years to reach Sirius, what an incomprehensible time it would require to pass so overwhelming an interval as 950 times the distance! And yet, could we arrive there, by all analogy, no boundary would meet the eye, but thousands and ten thousands of other remote and crowded systems would still bewilder the imagination.

“In my refractor this nebula has a most singular appearance, the central vacuity being black, so as to countenance the trite remark of its having a hole through it. Under favourable circumstances, when the instrument obeys the smooth motion of the equatorial clock, it offers the curious phenomenon of a solid ring of light in the profundity of space. The annexed sketch affords a notion of it. Sir John Herschel, however, with the superior light of his instrument, found that the interior is far from absolutely dark. “It is filled,’ he says, ‘with a feeble but very evident nebulous light, which I do not remember to have been noticed by former observers.'”

Since Sir John’s observation, the powerful telescope of Lord Rosse has been directed to this subject, and under powers 600, 800, and 1000, it displayed very evident symptoms of resolvability at its minor axis. The fainter nebulous matter which fills it, was found to be irregularly distributed, having several stripes or wisps in it, and the regularity of the outline was broken by appendages branching into space, of which prolongations the brightest was in the direction of the major axis.

Locating Messier 57:

M57 is a breeze to locate because it is positioned between Beta and Gamma Lyrae (the westernmost pair of the lyre’s stars), at about one-third the distance from Beta to Gamma. While it is easily seen in binoculars, it is a little difficult to identify because of its small size, so binoculars must be very steady to distinguish it from the surrounding star field.

In even a small telescope at minimum power, you’ll quickly notice a very small, but perfect ring structure which takes very well to magnification. Despite low visual brightness, M57 actually takes well to urban lighting conditions and can even be spied during fairly well moonlit nights. Larger aperture telescopes will easily see braiding in the nebula structure and often glimpse the central star. May you also see the many faces of the “Ring”!

The location of Messier 57 in the Lyra Constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

And here are the quick facts on Messier 57 to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 57
Alternative Designations: M57, NGC 6720, the “Ring Nebula”
Object Type: Planetary Nebula
Constellation: Lyra
Right Ascension: 18 : 53.6 (h:m)
Declination: +33 : 02 (deg:m)
Distance: 2.3 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 8.8 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 1.4×1.0 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier ObjectsM1 – The Crab Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.