Cygnus, also known as the Northern Cross, is a prominent constellation of the northern skies representing a swan flying along the Milky Way. On early autumn nights, Cygnus shines in the east during the evening, sweeps high overhead after midnight, and swings to the west by dawn.
Just 3° east of Cygnus’ brightest star, first-magnitude Deneb, lies a truly spectacular emission nebula. NGC 7000, more commonly called the North America Nebula after its resemblance to Earth’s continent, is known to most amateur astronomers, yet only a few have actually seen it.
This is probably due to the misconception that the nebula is only visible in long exposure photographs; this is not the case. In fact, under good conditions, NGC 7000 is visible to the naked eye as an enhancement of the Milky Way. However, dark skies are definitely a must.
If all the light coming from NGC 7000 were emitted by a point source, it would appear as a magnitude +4 star in our sky. Of course, in reality the light from the nebula is spread over two square degrees in the sky, so its brightness is quite dim (and nothing like a 4th-magnitude star). If the sky at your observing location is less than perfect, 7×50 binoculars or a wide-field telescope equipped with UHC or OIII filters will make the nebula easier to discern.
You will be looking right at it if you center Deneb in the field of view and then shift eastward to a kite-shaped asterism formed by the stars 55, 57, 60, and Xi Cygni. The North America Nebula lies in the eastern half of the kite asterism, with “Mexico” extending just beyond to the south. Averted vision will help bring out the dark nebulosity forming the “Gulf of Mexico”, and the “East” and “West Coasts”.
The North America Nebula and the neighboring Pelican Nebula (IC 5070) are both part of a single star-forming region with a mass of about 5,000 suns, which is part of a single dark, giant molecular cloud. Part of this molecular cloud lies in front of the region between the two nebulae, making it appear as if they are separate.
The small open star clusters NGC 6997 and Cr 428, which appear embedded within the nebula, are actually background objects in no way related to the North America Nebula. On some maps, NGC 6997 is sometimes mistakenly labeled as NGC 6996.
Finder map – field width 25°, stars to magnitude +7.