Strands of cold gas and dust stream from the center of this striking image of the Helix Nebula from the European Southern Observatory.
Explore the clumps and rings of this nearby planetary nebula. What patterns or stories do you see? Fireworks? A flower? Leave a note below.
The Helix Nebula formed when a star much like our Sun reached the final stages of life. After billions of years, the star ran out of hydrogen fuel. In an attempt to keep burning the remaining fuel, the star ballooned in size to become a red giant. But even this is not enough. The star puffed its outer layers into space forming an expanding bubble. A tiny blue dot, a white dwarf, is all that remains of the star. This white-hot cinder will take billions of years to cool.
From side to side, the Helix Nebula spans about four light-years; about the same distance between our Sun and the nearest star. Blazing radiation from the dead core of the star cause the gas in the expanding rings to glow like a neon sign. Zoom in close into the strands pointing toward the center of the system. Astronomers call these cometary knots. Each of these knots is about the size of our solar system. Scientists don’t know why the knots form but they do know how. Clumps of gas and dust blown outward from the star by the strong solar wind clump together. The leading edge of the knots shields the rest of the clump from the solar wind and radiation that would blow them away.
The image was taken with ESO’s VISTA telescope at the Paranal Observatory high in the mountains of Chile. The clear skies make it easy for the 4.1-meter telescope to pick out the faint light from the nebula and from faraway galaxies. Although the gas in this nebula is cool, VISTA’s infrared sensors detect the faint heat from the expanding cloud. The nebula looks much different to our eyes in visible light.
The Helix Nebula is one of the closest planetary nebulae to Earth. Light from the nebula has traveled at 6 trillion miles per year for 700 years to reach our eyes on Earth. It is found in the constellation Aquarius, the Water Bearer.