Striking Starry Eye

Credit: ESO


trands 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.

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S 27-01-2012, 10:49

A huge hazel eye, star­ing at us from the sky, like some giant dragon peer­ing into our universe!

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