Driftless Dark Skies

John Heasley
Star Nebula

I would like to celebrate five years of sharing articles in Voice of the River Valley with the story of the Ring Nebula. I first encountered it in 1970 on a Cub Scout trip to the Fels Planetarium in the Franklin Institute. Philadelphia could be a challenging place for stargazing, so I was especially wowed when the lights went down and so many stars appeared on the dome. My souvenirs that day were a prism and a postcard of the Ring Nebula. I was amazed by how a simple piece of glass could refract sunlight into a rainbow whenever I wanted. I didn’t quite understand what I was looking at in the postcard, but I discovered that I was living in an awesome universe with wonders such as the Ring Nebula. As a friend once observed, all dreams begin in childhood.
In the half century since, I’ve had time enough to learn that it is a planetary nebula — an expanding shell of gas ejected by an aging star. Stars spend their time fusing hydrogen into heavier elements such as carbon and oxygen and nitrogen and iron and calcium and potassium. As they near the end of their lives, dying stars broadcast these elements into the stellar neighborhood where they become the building blocks for the next generation of stars. Some of the elements may go into the planets that circle those stars and the living things that may inhabit those worlds and look up at the stars. That’s how we are stardust. Not a bad model to spend a lifetime crafting and then dispersing elements that may be of use for the next generation. When I started Driftless Stargazing five years ago, that’s why I chose it as an icon.
You can spot the Ring Nebula in the September skies. Look for Vega, the highest and brightest star in the west. To the left of Vega is a parallelogram of four dimmer stars forming the strings of the constellation Lyra the Lyre. The Ring Nebula is midway between the two stars farthest from Vega. Do adjust your expectations. We won’t see the colorful ring that appears on gift shop postcards or awesome images from the Hubble Space Telescope. If we looked at it together in a small telescope, we would see a small greyish smoke ring. But I find that all the more wonderful than a photo, because we are looking at photons that have traveled over 2 millennia to end their journey on our retinas! And we’re glimpsing part of a cosmic ecosystem where galaxies make the stars that make the elements that make worlds and life and consciousness possible.

John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador and with the IAU as a Dark Skies Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwestern Wisconsin, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies above.