Explore the Veil Nebula

The Veil Nebula, the tattered remains of an ancient supernova explosion, is one of the most spectacular objects in the night sky. Did you know it has two dozen parts visible in amateur telescopes?

8,000-year-old explosion

The Veil Nebula crosses the meridian around 11 p.m. in early September. It's located just below the left wing of Cygnus the Swan 3° south of Epsilon (ε) Cygni. The 4th magnitude star 52 Cygni punctuates the western half of the nebula.

Ever wish you could go back in time? I mean way back. Amateur astronomers are no strangers to time travel. We all know that the mere act of looking up means watching the clock spin backwards. So imagine hopping off your time machine around the year 6000 BC, several thousand years before the first pyramid arose in Egypt.

On that distant date, assuming favorable viewing circumstances, your gaze would have been transfixed by a star brighter than Venus below the left mid-wing of Cygnus the Swan. Here, a supergiant star 20 times more massive than the Sun called it a day, collapsing and rebounding in a spectacular supernova explosion. A glowing remnant, the Veil Nebula, has been expanding in the death-star's wake ever since. Eight thousand years later, even a small telescope reveals this wreath of thermonuclear wrath.

See the Veil anew

Many amateurs are familiar with the Veil Nebula's two brightest arcs, called the Western and Eastern Veils, but there are many more features tucked between and about. For the best views use low magnification and UHC-style or OIII nebular filter to darken the sky and increase contrast. North is up.
Scott Rosen

Giant stars are notorious for losing mass in the form of high-speed winds of subatomic particles and dust. Astronomers suspect that strong winds from the progenitor star blew a large, roughly spherical cavity into the surrounding interstellar gas long before the explosion. Later, when the star self-destructed, the expanding shock wave slammed into the shell, heating and exciting the gas to glow.

Since the cavity walls aren't perfectly uniform — gas density varies from location to location — the brightness of the Veil Nebula varies. Where the density is thick, the shock wave creates a bright filament in the cavity wall; where it's thin or nonexistent, we see more diffuse emission or missing sections. It's amazing to realize that the shock wave is still plowing through the interstellar gas at nearly a million miles an hour (40 km/second) in places.

This video shows the movement of the gas filaments within the Veil Nebula from 1997 to 2015 using the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA / ESA / Hubble Heritage Team

To this day, the Veil continues to balloon outward. Photos taken with the Hubble Space Telescope in 1997 compared with those from 2015 clearly show individual filaments on the move. The strands comprising the eastern and western arcs of the Veil appear especially bright because we're viewing them tangentially, or edge-on — the same as looking at a wrinkled bed sheet from the side.

The Veil Nebula is surprisingly easy to see in a smaller scope, especially if you use a UHC or OIII nebular filter. I was shocked when I attempted it in 10x50 wide-field binoculars recently. Under a Bortle class 3 sky without a filter I easily spotted the southern spread of the western Veil as a faint haze extending south of the star 52 Cyg, while the eastern, crescent-shaped portion was immediately visible as a nebulous arc with variations in brightness along its curve. Yes, in binoculars.

The brighter sections of the nebula bear unique catalog numbers and/or nicknames:

  • Western Veil, or NGC 6960 ("Finger of God" or "Witch's Broom"). This section is centered on the bright star 52 Cyg. The northern half looks like a sharp fang with a darker center. The southern half divides into parallel ribbons reminiscent of the summertime Milky Way.
  • Eastern Veil, or NGC 6992, is the brightest part and composed of multiple, interwoven strands of nebulosity. NGC 6995 is a bright arc of material at the south end of 6992 that unfurls to the west; together they're known as the "Network Nebula." IC 1340 is a bright condensation in the arc parallel to and immediately south of NGC 6995.
  • NGC 6979 and NGC 6974 are two fainter hunks of diffuse nebula between the two main arcs and a short distance east of the magnificent Pickering's Triangle, a prominent bright section shaped like a goatee and trailing a long, winding strand of nebulosity. The Triangle is also cataloged as Simeis 3-188.
  • Simeis 3-210 is a brighter patch of nebulosity at the remnant's southern border.
Untangling the Veil

This black-on-white version of Scott Rosen's photo is labeled to help you identify the many pieces of the Veil Nebula. Besides the named sections, I've labeled other distinct patches and spots alphabetically from A through N. Several helpful field stars to help you find your way around are circled. North is up. Click for a higher resolution image you can download and use at the telescope. I would also suggest you download this unlabeled version in case you feel like roaming first and identifying features later. 
Scott Rosen

But these regions only scratch at the surface of what you can see.There are at least a dozen more nebulous knots, patches and strands strewn about the ~3°-wide field of view encompassed by the remnant. You can easily spend your entire observing session right here. I sure did!

Through an old University Optics 80mm f/6.25 refractor with a UHC filter and 25x eyepiece, I could make out both halves of the Veil and even part of Pickering's Triangle. These smaller instruments whetted my appetite for a look through my 15-inch Obsession with the OIII narrow-band filter and a low magnification (64x), wide-field eyepiece.

Even under inky, rural skies, a nebular filter is a powerful tool because of its ability to block natural skyglow. Screw one into your eyepiece and watch the nebula come alive with curving and twisty strands that appear to hover in 3D against the starry backdrop. The Veil rightly elicits nearly as many wows as Saturn or your favorite globular cluster.

Parting the Veil

Simply extraordinary

NGC 6960, also known as the Western Veil or Witch's Broom, displays extraordinary textures. Analysis of the emissions from the nebula indicate the presence of oxygen, sulfur, and hydrogen. North is to the left.
Ken Crawford / CC BY-SA 3.0

I like to start west and move east, so we begin with NGC 6960, a bright section of nebula "split" into two very different halves by the glare of 52 Cygni. To the north I see a hollow fang outlined by sharp, bright filaments. Higher magnification makes its darker center more obvious. If you switch back and forth from direct to averted vision, the fang appears to sharpen and pulse as if in attack mode. Scary stuff, the heavens.

The southern half unfurls in graceful ribbons of nebulosity. Two streamers are bright and obvious, a third one to the east fainter and more diffuse. In the old days, I'd call it good at this point and move 2.3° to the northeast to study the other half of the nebula. Instead, I take my time, put on some boots and follow the ribbons' arc southward into a lagoon of faint, patchy nebulosity. The brightest, most obvious piece is labeled D in the map and looks a bit like the letter F. You can't miss it. The regions labeled C, B, I and J are fainter, diffuse condensations wedged between the Western Veil and the southern reaches of what I call "The Funnel." More on that in a minute.

Gummy Worms and a Goatee

Continuing southeast we come to Simeis 3-210 (labeled A), an obvious fuzzy glow that extends southwest of a 6th magnitude star at the apex of a nearly equilateral triangle with two other 8th magnitude stars. All are circled on the map. Although I left it unlabeled, there's an additional small patch immediately northeast of A, a "Mini-Me" nebular companion. Once you've found these, use averted vision to spy the larger, diffuse K-cloud.

Like eating an ear of corn, let's head back north again and chew our way south beginning with the amazing Pickering's Triangle, a tangle of wormy filaments and vacant holes that narrows into a bright goatee of sorts before morphing into what looks like a squiggly gummy worm or the neck of a funnel. This is one of my favorite sections of the Veil — take a look and share your impression with us. Oh, and don't miss out on E, a prominent, arc-shaped patch just west of the Triangle and one of the easiest pieces.

I know you're eager to get to the Eastern Veil, but we have a few more stops, notably the trio of wisps L, G and M. L is the brightest and most condensed of the three; G a little fainter and more diffuse and M the faintest and largest. With averted vision, it looks like an old man's bushy eyebrow. NGC 6974 and NGC 6979 are side-by-side, mottled blobs of glowing gas; to their west look for a short, chalky streak labeled F.


The Eastern Veil is just over a degree long, so I can barely squeeze it all into one field of view. Each section or NGC / IC number possesses its own unique character: the northern third bright and thick with lacework reminiscent of beaming auroral columns; the mid-section fainter and sliced into multiple, parallel streaks, and the south third nothing short of a revelation. Is there anything in the heavens that looks as terrifyingly beautiful as these crusty, ribbed arcs, so bonelike in appearance you can practically hear them rattle on frosty nights?

A sight like no other

The Eastern Veil is one of the most magnificent sights in amateur telescopes. An 8-inch with an OIII filter will really do it justice.
Hunter Wilson

At the far terminus of IC 1340, a small, bright feather of nebulosity (N) points the way south back into the open sea of stars. Our journey ends at the bright, nebular shoal H, where we might look back across the 110-light-year span of the Veil to appreciate how far we've come.

Resources / Notes:
* For consistency, I labeled the smaller parts of the Veil Nebula after Alan Whitman's lettering system as described on Steve Gottlieb's Veil Nebula page but extended it to 14 distinct features.
* Cygnus Loop and Veil Nebula — More about the Veil's amazing structures and how they came to be.

10 thoughts on “Explore the Veil Nebula

  1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

    Thanks Bob!

    Through an interesting coincidence, this past Saturday night my astronomy club had a private event at the Robert Ferguson Observatory ( rfo.org ). I spent most of my time at the 40-inch f/3.6 reflector with a half dozen of my fellow club members and three friendly telescope operators. This telescope has an interesting three-mirror design that puts the eyepiece down toward the bottom of the tube, so that even when looking straight up a tall person can see through the eyepiece, and a short person only has to stand on a step-stool, rather than teetering at the top of a ladder. The telescope operators were very hospitable, taking requests. We spent a long time at the Veil, and eventually the operators let us control the telescope while looking through the eyepiece, so we could pan around throughout the entire object. Quite a tour!

    I appreciate your explanation of the three-dimensional structure of the nebula, it helps me understand what I was seeing.

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      Hi Anthony,
      The views through the 40-inch of the Veil must have been astounding. I’m curious — did you view with or without a nebular filter?

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      Thank you, Kerbal for your kind words. I think you’ll really enjoy this nebula. And if you have one, you’ll find that a nebula filter will greatly enhance the view.

  2. Fabrice MoratFabrice Morat

    Hello Bob,

    A nice article on the veil nebula was bound to happen… It’s funny to think that an observation of this nebulous object, when we were young teenagers (in the 1980s), was a myth nearly dedicated to astrophotographers. Then, interferential filters have arrived and all type of instrument (binoculars like big Dobson) had taken advantage of that.
    Anthony, your story with the big scope should have been an unique experience !
    A bientôt,
    Fabrice M.

  3. Mircea-Pteancu

    Hello Bob
    Thank you for your the wonderful articles ,full of practical wisdom.

    Last night myself and my friend Armand spent a lot of time observing the Veil Nebula through our 200mm reflectors.
    Next time I will take the with me a copy of Scott Rosen’s photo.
    Although with were observing close to our +190.000 city , it helped to be outside of the light pollution dome.
    Using a MZT 8-24 mm zoom eyepiece teamed with a UHC filter we saw many details in the Veil Nebula.
    I recognize for sure with the help of dito picture NGC 6992 ,NGC 6995 ,NGC 6960 .
    Some mottling or laces were plainly visible in NGC 6995.
    I wasn’t sure about the Pickering Triangle because the nebulosity was very extended.
    Now I understand we were seeing also that one but it was quite faint in the 200mm reflectors.
    I was expecting – don’t ask me why – the Pickering Triangle to be much smaller…

    Just for the record : last night I was able to spot the Crescent Nebula in Cygnus – mainly with averted vision.
    Both of us have seen clearly the Helix Nebula and big parts of North America Nebula.

    Thank you and please keep up the good work , Mircea from Arad , Romania

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      Thank you for your kind words and a hello to you and other Romanian observers! I’m glad you got out for a look, and yes, Pickering’s Triangle is large. The northern half is faint, but it becomes denser and brighter as you explore south. Low power is best — I use 64x.

  4. Fabrice MoratFabrice Morat

    Bob and all deep sky observers,

    If the moon can retain us one life for study, this SN remnant will surely be an one year observational object (summer/autumn) with an hypothetic 100% good weather. Bob has focused on a lot of patches, bright or faint and i find his work very thorough. Last summer, like him, i zoomed into faint Simeis 3-210 and the dramatic scratch on the northern part (resp. labeled A and M on Bob’s chart) with 2 original drawings (T600 at La Palma island). But have you noted inside this big bubble that a condensation with high surface brightness wait your visit. I call it the “knot” in the shadow of the eastern veil (H label). It’s perhaps the only zone where you can amplify at the telescope and make “medium resolution” on the Veil. Here is a drawing with the T600 (199x to 397x with narrow BP filters) :
    Fabrice M.

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