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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