The Helix Nebula: The Eye of God

Expelled outer layers of white dwarf glowing brightly in the infrared 

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Space news (astrophysics: planetary nebula; Helix Nebula) – 650 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Aquarius – 

This composite image shows a visually stunning planetary nebula labeled “The Eye of God” more serious observers call the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293). Planetary nebula are the remains of a dying star much like our own Sol, only 5 billion years in the future. At this time the Sun will run out of hydrogen to use as its fuel source for the fusion process and will start using helium to create heavier carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. Once it runs out of helium to fuse, it will die and expel its outer gas layers, leaving a tiny, hot core called a white dwarf. An Earth-sized core so dense a teaspoon full would weigh more than a few black rhinos. 

First discovered in the 18th century, planetary nebula like the Helix Nebula emit across a similar, broad spectrum from ultraviolet to infrared. The image shown at the top uses a combination of ultraviolet radiation collected by NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer ((GALEX in blue(0.15 to 2.3 microns)) and infrared light detected by their Spitzer Space Telescope ((red(8 to 24 microns) and green(3.6 to 4.5 microns)) and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer ((WISE in red(3.4 to 4.5 microns)) showing the subtle differences observed in the different wavelengths of light emitted by ghostly celestial objects like NGC 7293 and NGC 6369 (The Little Ghost). 

Dust makes this cosmic eye look red. This eerie Spitzer Space Telescope image shows infrared radiation from the well-studied Helix Nebula (NGC 7293), which is a mere 700 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius. The two light-year diameter shroud of dust and gas around a central white dwarf has long been considered an excellent example of a planetary nebula, representing the final stages in the evolution of a sun-like star. Spitzer data show the nebula's central star is itself immersed in a surprisingly bright infrared glow. Models suggest the glow is produced by a dust debris disk. Even though the nebular material was ejected from the star many thousands of years ago, the close-in dust could be generated by collisions in a reservoir of objects analogous to our own solar system's Kuiper Belt or cometary Oort cloud. Formed in the distant planetary system, the comet-like bodies have otherwise survived even the dramatic late stages of the star's evolution. Image credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, Kate Su (Steward Obs, U. Arizona) et al.
Dust makes this cosmic eye look red. This eerie Spitzer Space Telescope image shows infrared radiation from the well-studied Helix Nebula (NGC 7293), which is a mere 700 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius. The two light-year diameter shroud of dust and gas around a central white dwarf has long been considered an excellent example of a planetary nebula, representing the final stages in the evolution of a sun-like star.
Spitzer data show the nebula’s central star is itself immersed in a surprisingly bright infrared glow. Models suggest the glow is produced by a dust debris disk. Even though the nebular material was ejected from the star many thousands of years ago, the close-in dust could be generated by collisions in a reservoir of objects analogous to our own solar system’s Kuiper Belt or cometary Oort cloud. Formed in the distant planetary system, the comet-like bodies have otherwise survived even the dramatic late stages of the star’s evolution.
Image credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, Kate Su (Steward Obs, U. Arizona) et al.

Astronomers have studied planetary nebulae like the Helix Nebula and M2-9 (Wings of a Butterfly Nebula) as much as any recorded during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. The remnant of a rapidly evolving star near the end of its lifespan, the white dwarf star is a tiny, barely perceptible point of light at the center of the nebula in this composite image. Thousands of planetary nebula have been detected within a distance of about 100 million light-years of Earth and astronomers estimate about 10,000 exist in the Milky Way. Making planetary nebula a relatively common celestial mystery observed as we trace our roots to their beginning. 

Watch this YouTube video on the Helix Nebula.

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This collage of planetary nebula images was put together by NASA technicians to express the beauty and wonder of planetary nebula. Credits: NASA

Read and learn about the icy blue wings of planetary nebula Hen 2-437.

Read about planetary nebula Menzel 2.

Learn about the last days of planetary nebula Hen 2-362.

Learn more about the Helix Nebula here

Read and learn more about planetary nebulae

Join the space journey of NASA here

Learn more about NASA’s GALEX

Discover the Spitzer Space Telescope here

Read and discover more about NGC 6369. 

Learn more about what NASA’s WISE has discovered about the infrared cosmos here

Discover the Wings of a Butterfly Nebula.  

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