The Helix Nebula in new colors

Jan 19, 2012
ESO's Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) has captured this unusual view of the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293), a planetary nebula located 700 light-years away. The coloured picture was created from images taken through Y, J and K infrared filters. While bringing to light a rich background of stars and galaxies, the telescope's infrared vision also reveals strands of cold nebular gas that are mostly obscured in visible images of the Helix. Credit: ESO/VISTA/J. Emerson. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

(PhysOrg.com) -- ESO's VISTA telescope, at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, has captured a striking new image of the Helix Nebula. This picture, taken in infrared light, reveals strands of cold nebular gas that are invisible in images taken in visible light, as well as bringing to light a rich background of stars and galaxies.

The is one of the closest and most remarkable examples of a . It lies in the constellation of Aquarius (The Water Bearer), about 700 light-years away from Earth. This strange object formed when a star like the Sun was in the final stages of its life. Unable to hold onto its outer layers, the star slowly shed shells of gas that became the nebula. It is evolving to become a and appears as the tiny blue dot seen at the centre of the image.

The nebula itself is a complex object composed of dust, ionised material as well as molecular gas, arrayed in a beautiful and intricate flower-like pattern and glowing in the fierce glare of ultraviolet light from the central hot star.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
This video compares a new view of the Helix Nebula acquired with the VISTA telescope in infrared light with the more familiar view in visible light from the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory. The infrared vision of VISTA reveals strands of cold nebular gas that are mostly obscured in visible light images of the Helix. Credit: ESO/VISTA/J. Emerson. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

The main ring of the Helix is about two light-years across, roughly half the distance between the Sun and the nearest star. However, material from the nebula spreads out from the star to at least four light-years. This is particularly clear in this since red molecular gas can be seen across much of the image.

While hard to see visually, the glow from the thinly spread gas is easily captured by VISTA's special detectors, which are very sensitive to . The 4.1-metre telescope is also able to detect an impressive array of background .

The powerful vision of ESO's VISTA telescope also reveals fine structure in the nebula's rings. The infrared light picks out how the cooler, molecular gas is organised. The material clumps into filaments that radiate out from the centre and the whole view resembles a celestial firework display.

Even though they look tiny, these strands of molecular hydrogen, known as cometary knots, are about the size of our Solar System. The molecules in them are able to survive the high-energy radiation that emanates from the dying star precisely because they clump into these knots, which in turn are shielded by dust and . It is currently unclear how the cometary knots may have originated.

Explore further: Millisecond pulsars clearly demonstrate that pulsars are neutron stars

Related Stories

Into the eye of the helix

Feb 25, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- The Helix Nebula, NGC 7293, lies about 700 light-years away in the constellation of Aquarius (the Water Bearer). It is one of the closest and most spectacular examples of a planetary nebula.

Scientists discovers 'firework' display in Helix Nebula

Jul 20, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- A star does not die without getting noticed and may even leave the universe with "fireworks." At the end of its life cycle, a star begins to collapse in the middle and throws new material ...

A cosmic inkblot test

Aug 11, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- If this were an inkblot test, you might see a bow tie or a butterfly depending on your personality. An astronomer would likely see the remains of a dying star scattered about space -- precisely ...

The Last Confessions of a Dying Star

Mar 04, 2008

Probing a glowing bubble of gas and dust encircling a dying star, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope reveals a wealth of previously unseen structures.

VISTA stares deeply into the blue lagoon

Jan 05, 2011

This new infrared image of the Lagoon Nebula was captured as part of a five-year study of the Milky Way using ESO's VISTA telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. This is a small piece of a much larger ...

Orion in a New Ligh (w/ Video)

Feb 10, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The Orion Nebula reveals many of its hidden secrets in a dramatic image taken by ESO’s new VISTA survey telescope. The telescope’s huge field of view can show the full splendour of the ...

Recommended for you

How small can galaxies be?

Sep 29, 2014

Yesterday I talked about just how small a star can be, so today let's explore just how small a galaxy can be. Our Milky Way galaxy is about 100,000 light years across, and contains about 200 billion stars. Th ...

The coolest stars

Sep 29, 2014

One way that stars are categorized is by temperature. Since the temperature of a star can determine its visual color, this category scheme is known as spectral type. The main categories of spectral type are ...

Simulations reveal an unusual death for ancient stars

Sep 29, 2014

(Phys.org) —Certain primordial stars—those 55,000 and 56,000 times the mass of our Sun, or solar masses—may have died unusually. In death, these objects—among the Universe's first-generation of stars—would ...

User comments : 0