The Helmet of a Hero

ESO/B. Bailleul

Ancient bards spun tales of heroes res­cu­ing maid­ens and the eter­nal strug­gle of good ver­sus evil. So it’s fit­ting that a huge glow­ing hel­met with gos­samer wings should adorn the head of Thor, one of mytholo­gies great­est fig­ures. Gaze deep into the rich neb­ula of glow­ing gas and dust in this amaz­ing image of Thor’s Hel­met from the Euro­pean South­ern Obser­va­tory.

If ancients could have seen celes­tial objects a lit­tle sharper, they might have come up with sim­i­lar sto­ries. So it’s no sur­prise that present-day astronomers roman­ti­cize the amaz­ing objects they see with spec­tac­u­lar names hint­ing at the rich mythol­ogy sur­round­ing the stars.

Thor’s Hel­met, a neb­ula also known as NGC 2359, is no excep­tion. The helmet-shaped neb­ula is a cos­mic bub­ble. A mas­sive star has formed near the bubble’s cen­ter. The strong solar wind from this star pushes away gas and dust clear­ing an area span­ning about 30 light-years. Ultra­vi­o­let radi­a­tion from the new star excites ele­ments in the gas caus­ing it to glow with dif­fer­ent col­ors; pink and red from hydro­gen atoms, blue-green from oxy­gen atoms.

The cen­tral star is known as a Wolf-Rayet star. Astronomers believe these extremely hot giant stars are going through their last stage of stel­lar evo­lu­tion before explod­ing in a colos­sal and cat­a­clysmic event known as a super­nova. By explod­ing, the star will destroy itself, giv­ing off more energy in a sin­gle moment than our Sun would pro­duce in a thou­sand life­times. For short peri­ods of time, super­novae will out­shine their par­ent galax­ies. The last vis­i­ble super­novae in Earth’s skies hap­pened in 1604.

Thor’s Hel­met lies about 15,000 light-years from Earth toward the con­stel­la­tion Canis Major, the Great Dog. The image was taken on the ESO’s 50th anniver­sary, Octo­ber 5, 2012.

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The ancient peo­ples saw pic­tures in the sky. From those pat­terns in the heav­ens, ancient sto­ry­tellers cre­ated leg­ends about heroes, maid­ens, drag­ons, bears, cen­taurs, dogs and myth­i­cal crea­tures…
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