This picture may require a bit of explanation. Its not really about the bright star on the left of the picture. The nebula is the long thin cloud extending to the left of the star. Like so many deep space objects, it does not jump out of the picture and grab you. On the other hand, I find that this picture draws me to reflections on the scale and variety of our universe, to think on those bottomless questions about where we come from and what we are made of.
The universe is full of some very odd bodies. These must be appreciated on their own terms. This nebula may look a bit like a helix, or a slinky, but its real nature is considerably further from our own experiences than its name suggests. If we call it a giant gas cloud, as it is usually described, we must be careful how we understand that description. First, ‘giant’ is an understatement, at least in human terms. When an object has dimensions measured in light years, and a light year is about 6 trillion miles, we must admit that its size is beyond comprehension. And when we say ‘gas cloud’, we must not imagine that this is anything like the clouds we see every day. It is tenuous beyond imagining. If you were in the middle of it, you might not be aware of the presence of any gas at all, as its density is so tiny. Regardless, those with a certain appreciation for these things may call it beautiful.
Henry Walters at the Perkin Observatory, Dublin School
This is the first picture that we got from our CCD deep space camera. Were we ever lucky! We pointed and we shot, and this is what came out. It’s a gas cloud, about 5,000 light years away. Its connection to a swan is not clear, except that we have found that many preschoolers can see the resemblance right away, while older people miss it.
Larry Ames and Jonathan Weis at the Perkin Observatory Dublin School