top of page

NGC 281 - The Pacman Nebula | Astrophotography Tips & Pictures

Updated: May 17, 2023

If you love video games, you must capture this target at least once! NGC 281 is also known as the Pacman Nebula because it looks like... Pacman! 🕹 In this post, you will find information, images, and tips to photograph the Pacman Nebula.


Object Designation: NGC 281, IC 11, Sh2-184

Also known as: The Pacman Nebula

Constellation: Cassiopeia

Object Type: Emission Nebula

Distance: 9,500 light-years away

Magnitude: 6.8

Discovery: August 1883 by Edward Emerson Barnard


The Pacman Nebula is an emission nebula in the constellation Cassiopeia. It is located in the Perseus arm of our Milky Way galaxy, and so is best photographed in the Fall Season. We'll show you all our attempts in this post, our last one being with over 54 hours of total integration time!


 

The Pacman Nebula in Narrowband with a Refractor Telescope and Monochrome Camera

November 2022


Three years after our first attempt at photographing this object, I decided to revisit it with this time a refractor telescope installed under Bortle 2 skies, a better monochrome camera, and 54 hours of exposure time.


I initially wanted to see how far the fainter gases extended out of the nebula itself, and I was not disappointed! One the picture below, you can see so much gas expelling from the left/bottom side of the nebula, as well as an incredible amount of hydrogen alpha all around. Click the image for the full-resolution version!


54 hours on the Pacman Nebula in narrowband

Want to process your images following our own workflow? Download our PixInsight PDF Guide!


GEAR USED:

Camera: QHY600M

Telescope: Stellarvue SVX130

Mount: 10Micron GM1000 HPS

Accessories: Moonlite Nitecrawler focuser / Pegasus Astro Ultimate Powerbox

Processing: Pixinsight, with RC-Astro plugins

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 54 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 3 hours each for RGB, 51 hours for SHO

Gain: 56


 

Utah Desert Remote Observatories


We recently installed this astrophotography setup under Bortle 2 skies at a remote observatory in Southern Utah. Having such dark skies and clear nights for the majority of the year means that we can now take our time and spend much more time on each deep-sky object we image. This is why we now spend 50+ hours on most targets taken from that location and get pictures like this!


Utah Desert Remote Observatory at night
Utah Desert Remote Observatory at night

If you would like to permanently host your telescope next to ours under amazing desert skies, you can contact the owner at info@utahdesertremote.com


 

The Pacman Nebula Astrophotography with a Beginner Reflector Telescope

November 2019


This was our first time imaging the Pacman Nebula. We did not plan out our night correctly and initially did not intend to photograph NGC 281 that day, but changed our minds and spent 2 hours on it. Although the Pacman Nebula is bright enough to look great in most pictures, we wish we spent two extra hours of total exposure time on it to reduce noise in the background and get some more of the faint outer gases.


The image below is the result we got doing one hour of Hydrogen Alpha, thirty minutes of Oxygen III, and thirty minutes of Sulfur II.


NGC 281 in narrowband with the ASI 1600MM

The Crescent Nebula NGC 6888 in Cygnus - ZWO ASI 1600MM-Pro Astrophotography using a Orion 8" Astrograph f/3.9 reflecting telescope in the Nevada desert and with an ASI Air, LRGB

GEAR USED:

Acquisition: ZWO ASIAIR

Processing: Pixinsight

ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 2 hours

Exposure Time per frame: 3 minutes

Filters: Ha (1 hour) / OIII (30 min) / SII (30 min)

Gain: 139



 

How to find the Pacman Nebula?

How to find the Pacman Nebula in the night sky, map

Despite NGC 281's bright magnitude, this object cannot be spotted with the naked eye due to its gas composition. You might be able to see it using binoculars or a telescope if you are observing from a very dark location. The Pacman Nebula has an apparent size of 35 arcminutes.


NGC 281 is located in Cassiopeia. An easy way to find it is to locate the constellation's iconic "W" shape and, from the middle star, aim just a bit "under" the W. You might be able to frame both the Pacman Nebula and the famous Andromeda Galaxy if using a DSLR camera with a wide lens.


The best time to observe and photograph the Pacman Nebula is in Fall. It is not far from some other popular objects like the Bubble Nebula, the cluster M103, the planetary nebula M76, and the Double Cluster in Perseus.


 

The Pacman Nebula Information


The Pacman Nebula is located between 9,200 and 9,500 light-years away in the Perseus arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. It is a large emission nebula with a radius of 48 light-years. It is an active star-forming region that also is home to thick dark dust lanes. Several Bok globules can also be spotted within the object.


Open cluster IC 1590 by NASA
IC 1590 by NASA

Visible in the center of the Pacman Nebula is a young open cluster, IC 1590. It is faint but easily visible in photographs. You might also be able to spot in with a pair of binoculars or a telescope if observing from a very dark site.


The cluster is home to more than 279 stars and illuminates the gases around it that shape the Pacman Nebula.


The photo on the left was taken by NASA and shows several stars from IC 1590.


Below you can see an annotated version of our image. It shows several of the main stars around NGC 281. You can also see that the dark dust clouds near the top of the nebula are labeled as LBN 615. A couple of other objects from the Lynds Catalog of Bright Nebulae can be seen in the image, like LBN 611 and LBN 621.

Pacman Nebula annotated

You can see the high-resolution annotated image on our Astrobin.


 

Our Premium Astrophotography Course


Want to learn all aspects of astrophotography in the most efficient way possible?

The Galactic Course includes a LIFETIME membership that gives you unlimited access to all current and upcoming astrophotography content. Step into an ever-growing realm of knowledge and learn at your own pace. Make life-long friends and connections with other members, and get tips from instructors that truly care about your journey and progress under the night sky.

 

Processing NGC 281


Processing the Pacman Nebula was actually pretty difficult. I followed our usual processing workflow, as I do for pretty much all our Astrophotography images, but I had some trouble getting a result I liked. Going to bed and restarting from scratch the next day helped get the best out of the data.


How much data can you get with each filter on NGC 281?


Just like most of our images taken with our monochrome camera, we like to show you guys what the stacked data for each channel looks like before combining them into a color image.


Below are, from left to right, our stacked images of the Pacman Nebula using the following three narrowband filters:

  • Hydrogen Alpha

  • Oxygen III

  • Sulfur II



We also spent 1 hour each on R, G, and B for the sole purpose of having natural-looking stars.


I did my best to reveal as much hydrogen-alpha has possible in and around the Pacman Nebula. Removing the stars prior to doing this is of course crucial, and I am glad I was able to show as much gas as I did.


Starless pacman nebula

On the right, you can see what the starless version of our image looks like, and truly admire all the hydrogen alpha gas present.


Once the stars were added back, I just had to reduce their size a little bit and export the result!




Astrophotography PixInsight processing guide


If you would like to learn how I process all our images, you can download a full PDF "follow along" file that contains 97 pages, a full 1 hour and 45 minutes walkthrough tutorial video, our custom pre-sets for your dashboard, and even raw data HERE.


It also includes a section on how to download and process data from the James Webb Space Telescope.


The file is updated whenever I decide to tweak my workflow or add more to it, and you always get the updates for free!



 

The Pacman Nebula FAQ


  • How did the Pacman Nebula get its name?

NGC 281 got the nickname of "Pacman Nebula" because it looks like the "Pacman" video game character from Bandai Namco, both visually and in photographs.


  • In which constellation is the Pacman Nebula located?

You can find NGC 281 in the constellation Cassiopeia.


  • How big is the Pacman Nebula?

NGC 281 has a diameter of 96 light-years and a radius of 48 light-years. From Earth, it has an apparent size of 35 arc-minutes.


  • How far is the Pacman Nebula?

The Pacman Nebula lies approximately 9,500 light-years away from Earth.


  • How long should my exposure time be when photographing the Pacman Nebula?

To image NGC 281, we suggest taking 5 to 10-minute exposures, and spending at least 3 hours on it. If your goal is to also reveal all the fainter gas on the outside of the nebula, you will likely need to spend 20 or more hours capturing data.


  • Should I use a filter to image the Pacman Nebula?

NGC 281 is an emission nebula, which makes it a great narrowband target, but that doesn't mean you cannot image it in broadband without a filter! If you do not own any filter, you can capture this object with an unmodified DSLR camera and a One-Shot-Color camera. Expect the result to look mostly red and some gas to not be as visible as if you were to shoot in narrowband.


Using a modified camera definitely will help you get a much better result as it will pick up a lot more hydrogen alpha signal.


If shooting in narrowband, the Pacman Nebula can either be captured in bicolor (H and O) or with all three narrowband filters (H, O, and S). If you have time, be sure to spend a couple of hours with your RGB filters to get stars with natural colors.


  • What equipment do I need to photograph the Pacman Nebula?

You can capture the Pacman Nebula with a DSLR/mirrorless or astrophotography camera, and use a small to medium size beginner telescope. A good field of view for this object would be around 500mm of focal length, which the affordable Askar FRA500 offers. You can also attempt photographing the Pacman Nebula with just a camera lens and star tracker without a telescope. One of the best lenses we can recommend for this task is the Rokinon 135mm f/2.


  • Is the Pacman Nebula moving away or toward Earth?

NGC 281 is blueshifted, meaning it is drifting toward us. It is believed that the Pacman Nebula is getting closer and closer to Earth at a speed of 20.9 mi/s (33.7 km/s).

 

Final Thoughts


We won't lie, we were never huge fans of this target... and spending 54 hours on it was a way to see if this target had any unique feature that would make it exciting. Well, we are now in love with this object! Seeing so much gas expelling from this bright nebula, and extending so far out is simply incredible, and we now are huge fans of the Pacman Nebula.


Have you imaged the Pacman Nebula? If so, upload your picture in the comments! We'd all love to see your work :)



Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to stay up to date with our work!


Clear Skies,

Galactic Hunter







 

GALACTIC HUNTER BOOKS


Astrophotography books by Galactic Hunter


2,950 views3 comments
PROCESSING GUIDES
PixInsight Processing Guides
GET OUR NEWSLETTER

Subscribe to our newsletter and instantly receive 7 free wallpapers!