One of the most interesting aspects of the brightest planetary nebulae is in visually observing their small observed disks with distinct colours. The only other celestial or deep-sky objects which show significant colours are double stars, which have the notoriety of having large colour ranges amongst the individual components by suffer various proximity effects that may influence each of the component colours. I.e. β Cyg / Beta Cygni (Alberio) or x Velorum / Δ95. In observations made at the Astronomical Society of New South Waless South Pacific Star Party in 1999 using 25cm LX-200 with fast slewing, it was noticed that you could quick make comparisons between individual planetaries. The differences were quite distinct and this made this very easy to ascertain without much drama.

Planetaries may also have significant colour variations; as exhibited by three principal emission wavelengths — Hβ (486.1nm), OIII (500.7nm and 495.9nm) and Hα at 656.3nm., roughly corresponding to the colours blue, blue-green and red, respectively. All these three wavelengths contribute more than 90% of the visible light emitted from the planetary nebula. As our eyes are inherently poor in their sensitivity in the red end of the spectrum, most of the Hα light is almost totally invisible to us at night. Consequently, most nebulous astronomical objects appear to the naked-eye as either whitish or greenish. Additionally, many planetary nebulae have most their visible light revealed in OIII blue-green line, which our eyes are sensitive. Thus many planetaries appear either bluish or greenish in colour, and their variations are likely from the combination of the three wavelength intensities and occasionally some other wavelengths. Colours of planetaries can be viewed by spectroscopy, and this remains the only useful scientific method of true evaluation. Such important information is normally leads to the understanding the nebula evolution and chemical composition of all planetaries.

The following article suggests one method in making
colour estimations of planetaries through telescopes.


At the telescope, most of the perceived colour seen by visual observers is relatively poor. This is a usual human eye physiological problem, where the onset of darkness causes this significant loss of colour vision, whose apparent mechanism lies with the so-called rod and cones of the human retina.

Rods essentially measure the intensity of light in the eye (greyness) and respond very little to colour. As light intensities do vary so much — ranges from full sunlight to the near pitch-black of night, the need for such a mechanism is obvious. As a consequence the rods work regardless of the intensity of light.

Cones are the colour receptors, and as the name suggest, have their diameters reduce to a small point. With enough illumination, the wavelengths coming into to eye are separated in to their component colour, which are sent along the optic nerve of the brain and interpreted as colour. Details on how the eye does this in unnecessary to understanding for the night-time observer as much of the colour is lost to our eyes during the night. In general summary, although the cones have a threshold to colour sensitivity, and below particular energies will almost completely ceases to function. As a consequence, when we look around at our surrounds at night, we normally only see the range of greyness.

When we look through any telescope, we are just exposed to the illumination of the stars in the field and the astronomical object in question. Most of the stars appear white or whitish in colour, but in some circumstances like a very blue or red star, we see some colour. These colours show very few colour hues, and this is because the colour component known as saturation is fairly weak. Here colour saturation simply is described as degree of whiteness in any perceived colour — so in astronomical objects these produce fairly pale colours and never intense ones. It is quite unusual during the night for anyone to see colours more than about 10% saturation, and although this is fairly arbitrary, experience finds that more intense colours than this simply cannot be view by the human eye.

The need for estimating colour in telescopes is likely not very necessary for the average observer, but for those engaged in writing astronomical descriptions, such reporting is both interesting and important to advise and guide other visual or deep-sky observers. For double stars, such methodologies are already established using scales like the favoured Hagen Colour Index (HCI). The scale of the HCI is between the designated colours −3 and +10, describing the whole range of possible double star colours from blue to white to yellow to orange to red, and roughly mimics the range seen in astronomical spectra and between the spectral classes. However, the problem for double stars using this index, is the inherent weakness is that the scale does not differentiate between different saturations. Although this scale is quite arbitrary between observers, as different eyes will see different colours, leaving a range of possibilities. There is also possible large numbers of different colours. Moreover, it is also difficult to ascertain as the stars are point sources, which can be partly solved by simply de-focussing the stars into larger disks.

For planetaries the choices of colour are less than double stars as there are two main colours — blue and green, mixed with a degree of greyness. If the saturation is less than 10%, then the range of possible colours is greatly diminished. No real scale exists for describing colours of planetaries, and with the availability of larger telescopes like Dobsonians, which reveal more colour, such a scale would be advantageous. One possible empirical method is the Triangular PNe Colour Scale, as mentioned in this text. Although this is only one possibility of several methods, it is probably the easy to use and describe.


The following is a method of colour determination for PNe. The best method would be to print the physical copy and distribute it to observers, however, the logistic to do this are just too difficult and frankly expensive!. With the availability of computers and colour printers, and the software available to do this, it is easier to do this at home yourself.

Note: I will assume that the observer here has access to a computer and colour printer, and is aware of how to set the colour balance of either the printer and/or the computer monitor. Considering the variations between eyes and minor differences should not cause too many problems.

I have used the RGB and CMYK colour methods combined with a standard Grey Scale. These were used to produce the range of colours and hues. I have based the calculations on 10% Saturation, and it is unlikely that any observer can see more stronger colours. The scale is arranged in twenty-one base colours formed into a triangle. Colour values are based on the amount of white or grey blended into the colour. Thus, each line in the triangle being the degree of blue, green and grey.

Calculations to organise the selected colours are not simple, as the relationships between the colour and saturation are not linear. In simple terms, the grey scale Grey in the table below are integrated into the selected individual colours, and looking at the groups across the triangle show the increasing greyness from left to right.

Each colour value is smoothed by the surrounding colours within the triangle AND then reduced to the similar mean saturation.

Analysis of this produced the average saturation of 10.2±0.9%, and this final result was made using rough linear approximations of the R, G and B values combined into one single value. An average of each different colour in the triangle producing the final mean saturation (Note: Each of these relationships are not linear)


Colour values are only whole numbers, some degree of rounding was required. This should have little have effect for the PNe observer.
The most problematic colour is Green No.3, which has a more yellow than it should be, but the colours found using the colour equations did not look quite right. Observers should not notice this difference too much.
The last line in the Triangle gives the Colourless Value, so no visible colour can be given. Its value is zero.
The colours Nos. 22 to 27 are degrees of grey and have no added colours.
ALL DESCRIPTORS really need some discussion and some consensus to decide their particular proper names.

All descriptive colours here are only a Guide for observers.


Table 1 below shows the colours need to reproduce Figure 1. Adjustments of the Printer and/or Screen need to be determined by the user. Values for the RGB, CMYK and Grey are given. I have basically used the RGB scale in these calculations because the values in low saturation in CMYK are more inaccurate. The Grey column shows degree of greyness in the colours, which underlies the reasonable colours produce in the triangular Colour Scale.

Table 1

Colour Saturation = 10.2±0.2%

00 - - - - - - - - Colourless - -
01 210 242 250 40 08 00 05 233 Aqua – Strong Blue [OIII] Colour 1
02 219 248 252 33 04 00 03 239 Blue Hβ Colour 2
03 224 244 225 08 00 07 04 235 Green - 2
04 221 247 247 10 00 00 03 239 Bluish - 3
05 227 244 243 07 00 00 04 238 Blue Green - 3
06 235 248 240 05 00 00 03 243 Greenish - 4
07 235 244 252 07 03 00 01 242 Pale Blue - 4
08 228 243 246 07 01 00 04 238 Pale Bluish - 4
09 221 240 239 07 00 00 06 234 Pale Greenish - 4
10 220 237 235 07 09 01 07 231 Pale Green - 4
11 240 245 253 05 03 00 01 244 Faint Blue - 5
12 230 240 251 08 04 00 02 238 Faintly Greenish Blue - 5
13 220 233 249 11 06 00 02 230 Faintly Blue Green - 5
14 210 228 225 07 00 01 11 222 Faintly Blueish Green - 5
15 200 220 220 08 00 00 14 214 Faintly Green - 5
16 245 246 255 04 04 00 00 246 Bluish-White - 6
17 235 240 252 06 04 00 02 239 Light Bluish-White - 6
18 223 230 250 11 08 00 02 230 Light Blue-Green Mauve? 6
19 206 220 221 06 00 00 03 215 Light Greenish-Grey - 6
20 201 215 215 05 00 00 16 210 Greenish Grey Perse 6
21 210 215 210 02 00 02 16 212 Green-Grey Perse 6
22 255 255 255 00 00 00 00 255 White - 7
23 253 253 253 00 00 00 01 253 Faint Grey - 7
24 250 250 250 00 00 00 02 250 Pale Grey - 7
25 245 245 245 00 00 00 04 245 Greyish - 7
26 230 230 230 00 00 00 10 230 Moderately Grey - 7
27 210 210 210 00 00 00 18 210 Grey - 7
28 253 226 225 00 27 28 18 2 Reddish 10% Hα 7



This text is a fairly rough draft and I would like to get some feedback on the soundness and usefulness of the method before fully explaining the methodology.
It is possible to expand this Triangle Scale, for saturations at 20%, leaving stronger colours if anyone things the degree of blue or green is not sufficient.
The scale can be expanded for other colours than blue and green. Another alternative would be a second triangle, below the grey scale on the last line, and this would display the colours of red and yellow. As all PNe are not this colour it is likely unnecessary, however, it would be good for completeness, and perhaps useful for double star observations.


Last Update : 27th November 2012

Southern Astronomical Delights © (2012)

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