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Ghostly Glows

by Perry Pezzolanella

Something eerie is lurking overhead these long, dark, chilly nights. The sky looks innocent with countless stars, but something is stirring, something that is very different from anything known. Here are four “somethings” that may leave you with a different kind of chill.

The Hind’s Variable Nebula (NGC 1555), also known as Hind’s Blinking Nebula, is a complex nebula in Taurus illuminated by T Tauri that has an eerie glow that can only be seen by looking off to the side in the eyepiece. Discovered by John Russell Hind on October 11, 1852, the star and nebula vary in brightness but not necessarily at the same time, which is a mystery. It has the illusion of the nebulosity suddenly disappearing when looked at directly with only the star remaining visible. Moving the eye to and from the nebula repeatedly will give a blinking effect.

The Ghost Nebula (Sh2-136) is a reflection nebula over two light years across and 1200 light years away in Cepheus. It has a spooky appearance of a human-like figure draped in a white sheet with raised arms rising from the top of a glowing white cloud structure resembling fog. The complex process of star formation creates clouds of different shapes and sizes. These cosmic dust clouds are imbedded with stars that give it a ghoulish brown color.

The Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543) is a planetary nebula in Draco. It is one of the most complex nebulae known with beautiful structures resembling a cat’s eye. It was discovered by Sir William Herschel on February 15, 1786 and has a bright, hot star in the center that lost its outer gaseous envelope around 1000 years ago, producing the nebula. This nebula has amazing twists, bubbles, knots, and arc-like features.

The icon of Halloween is up late at night. It is the Witch Head Nebula (IC 2118), an extremely faint but large reflection nebula in Eridanus that is an ancient gas cloud illuminated by the light of the nearby hot, blue supergiant star Rigel in Orion. The dust particles reflect blue light better than red, which gives the Witch Head its bluish color. It is about 1000 light years away and very large at 1º by 3º but so faint that it can only be seen in photographs. It appears like a classic witch’s head with the hat, eyes, nose, mouth, and chin in a convincing profile. It properly appears upside down but inverting the photo reveals the witch more readily.

October can be a spooky time of year to be out at night, especially while trick-or-treating, but there are glows that prowl the blackness of space all night long. There really are ghosts, cat’s eyes, and witches following us wherever we go and whatever we do among the spooky, leafless trees on a starlit autumn night.