The Helix Nebula (NGC 7293)

The Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) is the closest planetary nebula to our Solar System at 650 to 700 light years away (the distance is still a subject of some dispute). It is also the largest known, covering about half the apparent size of the moon.

Planetary nebulae are thought to be ejected matter from an exploded red giant. The Helix Nebula is about 10,000 years old, and the star at its centre will eventually become a white dwarf.

The apparent magnitude is about 6.5, yet the Helix Nebula is fairly difficult to see as it appears in binoculars as a wispy circular patch of cosmic fluff. The nebula is best seen in large telescopes, a colourful cat's eye glowing green.

To find The Helix Nebula start at zeta Aquarii (part of the 'spout') and drop straight south 21 (a bit over four fields of view). Sigma Aquarii will be crossed at exactly the half-way point. When the two stars 66 and 68 Aquarii slip into view you're in the right area. Now use this schema to find the Helix.

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1999-2014 by Richard Dibon-Smith.