This is an image of M27, the Dumbbell Nebula, taken from my backyard Friday Night (September 22, 2006) under clear but hazy conditions.
M27 is a so called “Planetary Nebula,” the first such object discovered (in 1764). These objects are formed when a medium sized start (like our sun), toward the end of its life, goes through a sort of explosion, blowing most of itself (i.e., the stars outer atmosphere) into space, leaving behind a small, very hot, “dwarf” star and a huge, expanding cloud of gas. The gas cloud fluoresces as it gets bombarded by Ultraviolet light emitted by the bluish-white dwarf star remaining in its center. The object is estimated to be 1000 light years away, glowing about 100 times brighter then our sun.
Our sun will eventually blow itself up in a similar fashion, leaving the inner planets (including earth) as burnt cinders.
The object is fairly bright as nebulae go, and is easy to see through a small scope, appearing as a grey puff of light roughly in the shape of an apple core. Larger amateur scopes show more detail, but I think it would take a very large scope to make the color visible to the naked eye.
The image was created from four separate “stacks” of photographs, the longest sequence imaging white light plus three shorter stacks taken through red, green and blue filters. The total exposure was about one hour. These were then combined in JASC paint shop to build this color image.