From the July 2013 issue

Sketching small planetaries

September 2013: Here are some tips I've picked up along the way to draw smaller planetaries.
By | Published: July 22, 2013 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
I love sketching planetary nebulae, especially the large, bright ones. You can find an incredible amount of detail in those objects. But nothing says you can’t use your pencil to draw smaller planetaries as well. Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way.

Because most planetary nebulae have strong emission lines at 495.9 and 500.7 nanometers — the two main wavelengths of doubly ionized oxygen — using an Oxygen-III (OIII) filter can improve your views. Some planetaries look better through Ultra High Contrast filters and, in a few instances, Hydrogen-beta filters. But an OIII filter is the first one you should try. Here’s a tip I use.

To locate especially small planetary nebulae, momentarily move the filter in and out of view between your eye and the eyepiece. Stars will dim when you view through the filter, while the planetary retains the same brightness. Then, once you find your target, attach the filter to the eyepiece for a detailed observation. In this context, “detailed” means you’ll be drawing.

NGC 6765
The author made this sketch of NGC 6765 and the one of NGC 7354 through a 16-inch reflector at f/4.5 on a non-tracking Dobsonian mount. She used an Oxygen-III filter attached to an 8-24mm zoom eyepiece set at 8mm, which gave a magnification of 225x. // All images: Erika Rix
The best approach to sketching a small planetary nebula is to start by plotting two or three prominent stars for orientation. Use a fine-tipped blending stump loaded with graphite to softly render the outer border of the planetary. Follow this by adding any subtle detail within it. Look closely for color and the brightness of the central region. Finally, add the remaining star field to finish the sketch. Now let’s practice on two small planetaries.

NGC 6765
If you’re like me, you rarely visit the constellation Lyra without swinging over to the Ring Nebula (M57). Let’s face it, the odds of locating M57 when you hunt planetary nebulae are in your favor. On the other hand, if you’re after more of a challenge, take a stab at NGC 6765. It’s an irregular planetary with a diameter of 38″, or about half the size of M57. It glows softly at magnitude 12.9.

To find it, point your telescope 1¼° west-northwest of globular cluster M56 between Sulafat (Gamma [γ] Lyrae) and Albireo (Beta [β] Cygni). NGC 6765 lies in the center of a triangle formed by three stars — a magnitude 11 star to the northeast, a magnitude 11.5 star to the southeast, and one of magnitude 9.7 to the west.

NGC 7354
The author rendered this sketch of NGC 7354 and the sketch of NGC 6765 on white paper with a black super-fine felt-tipped pen, 0.5mm mechanical pencil, #2 pencil, and a blending stump for the nebulosity.
If you use averted vision through an 8-inch telescope, NGC 6765 appears as a faint smudge with an offset core. A 12-inch scope reveals a bright, elongated core that stretches from northeast to southwest. Through a 16-inch instrument, stellar patches and a faint circular haze around the entire object replace the elongated appearance.

NGC 7354
It’s helpful when you can associate the location of a celestial object with specific star patterns. As an example, look for an ammonite pattern between Delta (δ) Cephei and Iota (ι) Cephei, which lie in the northern constellation Cepheus the King. You’ll find magnitude 12.2 NGC 7354, a 30″-wide planetary nebula, nestled at the pattern’s center.

You’ll want to use an OIII filter to locate this object. It appears as a faint circular disk with soft periphery through an 8-inch telescope. Through a 16-inch scope, its northwest and southeast edges are brighter and the center appears darker. A diffuse haze extends outward from its brightened edges at a magnification of 225x.

Above all, when you’re sketching small planetaries — which usually are faint as well — pay close attention to differences in contrast and the interplay between light and dark regions. Use the highest magnification the atmosphere will allow, and compare your finished sketch to what you see through the eyepiece, modifying if necessary. Have fun!