…continuedHunting Down the Helix
How Much Can You See?
But what about all the beautiful features visible in photographs? While you can’t observe the wealth of colorful detail that appears in deep images, there is more to see than you might think. I’ve read many observing reports and asked folks to tell me the smallest instrument they’ve been able to detect various features in. Let’s see what they have to say.
Amazingly enough, Michael Bakich writes, "From our dark-sky site 50 miles east of El Paso, three of us saw the Helix with the naked eye on August 26, 2000." And in Western Australia, where the Helix passes almost overhead, Maurice Clark and his friends have used its naked-eye visibility as a guide to sky conditions. Others have found it through 6 x 30 finders and described it as easy with small binoculars. The annularity of the Helix has been noted in 2.4-inch telescopes. The central star has been spotted in a 6-inch.
Through 8-inch scopes, the Helix has been seen to shine with a blue-green glow. The human eye is more sensitive to this color than to the reddish hue that dominates photographs. This is why an O III filter improves the view so much; it passes the blue-green light given off by doubly ionized oxygen (designated O III) while blocking the colors common to many sources of light pollution. Irregularities in the brightness of the ring also start to show up with an 8-inch scope.
The two "coils of the spring" have been clearly seen by Bill Ferris in Flagstaff, Arizona, using a 10-inch reflector and O III filter. Like many planetaries, the Helix has a faint outer halo, but it doesn’t show on most photographs. The brightest section emanates from the southeast edge, spirals out clockwise, and fades in the north. While this halo has been suspected in a 10-inch, a 20-inch is the smallest scope I know of in which it has been described as apparent.
Another tough target is the 16th-magnitude galaxy embedded in the northwest edge of the annulus. It is located 1.2' south of the prominent 9.9-magnitude star at that end and has been seen in a 17½-inch scope. What about those radial spokes? The streamers have been seen in a 16-inch and hints of the cometary globules at their ends with a 22-inch.
Many of these observations were made by very experienced deep-sky enthusiasts who frequent the Web-based group Amastro. Some of them observe from darker skies and more southerly latitudes than most of us enjoy, but their accomplishments give us something to strive for. When trying to nab any any of these features, choose nights of good transparency and the darkest sky you can find.
|The Helix Nebula|
|Designation||NGC 7293, C63|
|Right ascension (2000.0)||22h 29.6m|
|Declination (2000.0)||-20° 48'|
|Angular size||16' x 12'|
|Total visual magnitude||7.3|
|Mag. of central star||13.5|
|Distance in light-years||300|