The Helix screams in infrared

By Phil Plait | January 19, 2012 6:45 am

About 700 light years away sits the expanding death cry of a star: the Helix Nebula, a four-light-year wide gas cloud blasted out when a star that was once like the Sun gave up its life.

A new image of it in colors just outside what the human eye can see shows just how much it does look like a screaming star:

[Click to ennebulenate, or download the huge 6600 x 600 pixel 35 Mb version.]

This image is in the near-infrared, taken using the European Southern Observatory’s Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA), a 4.1 meter telescope in Chile. Equipped with a whopping 67 megapixel camera it can take pictures of large areas of the sky. The Helix nebula fits that bill: it’s close enough to us that it’s nearly the size of the full Moon in the sky.

This image is pretty nifty. It accentuates cooler gas than what we see in visible light. What’s colored red in the picture is actually infrared light coming from molecular hydrogen, and shows the sharp ring-like edge of the nebula. What you’re seeing here is not so much a ring as it is the walls of a barrel-like structure, and we happen to be seeing it nearly right down the tube (see Related posts below for all the info you could want on this amazing object).

It also accentuates the long, long streamers pointing directly away from the center. Those are comet-like tails coming from denser clumps of material boiling away as the fierce ultraviolet light of the central star floods out, their material flowing radially outward. This is seen in other nebulae as well.

And while it’s beautiful and scientifically very useful (I would’ve killed for data this nice when I was researching these nebulae in grad school), it’s also something of an existential reminder: someday, our own Sun will look a bit like this. Probably not quite this bright and well-defined; our local star doesn’t quite have the power needed to light up its surroundings this way. But for all intent and purpose, you’re seeing a snapshot of our solar system in seven or eight billion years.

Just in case you needed a little perspective this morning.

Image credit: ESO/VISTA/J. Emerson. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

Related posts:

The Helix’s dusty heart
Top 10 Astronomy Pictures of 2007: Runners Up
Down the throat of a dying star
Thus spoked the Dumbbell


Comments (19)

Links to this Post

  1. Looking through Gods Eye! « It dont Matter! | January 20, 2012
  1. BradG

    Nice Queensryche callout, was it intentional?

  2. Spathiphyllum

    Pareidolia time: I see Sauron’s Eye dilated :)

  3. The Lonely Sand Person

    I like huge versions! Easy to make into wallpaper. ^_^

  4. Astrobot

    OMFSM, I love the Helix and this high res version is just… jaw dropping. It shall be my desktop image forever! Or at least until the next stunning image comes along.

    Absolutely love how well defined the cometary globules are, as well 😀

  5. Thespis

    First thing I see online after my 24-hour self-imposed net blackout?
    eyeofsauron runrunrun… eeeeeeeeee!

    Thanks, Dr. P.

  6. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    A new image of it in colors just outside what the human eye can see shows just how much it does look like a screaming star:

    So . . . how many stars have you seen scream to know what one looks like? And what were you doing to them at the time?


  7. Lorne Schneider

    It’s The Eye of Sauron!

  8. chief

    Lets just hope that our future enables us to view our own sun in such a way in the distant future and reflect on where we came from. A pale blue dot once somewhere there.

  9. reidh

    7 or 8 billion years from now? I can hardly wait!

  10. Trebuchet

    Unlike #2 and #4, the first thing I thought of was the Larry Niven/Jerry Pournelle story, The Mote in God’s Eye. Beautiful!

  11. Studynot

    Dang, Lorne Schneider beat me to it…

    totally looks like the Eye of Sauron to me!

  12. MNP

    Yep, looks like an eye to me too.

  13. I don’t see a “helix” on this nebula but I do see a “cat’s eye” about to pounce on me whenever I see a photo of it. Why not call this a Cat Eye nebula?

  14. kevbo

    I see goatse.

    I’ve been spending too much time on…curse you Helen Killer!

  15. sam

    ooo that’s hot


    Better keep an eye one this thing. Never known when the next Black Crusade might come pouring out…

  17. stardustspeck

    I just thought you might like to know about this image:
    It’s not as hi-resolution, but it’s also over a decade old and was taken on a 1-meter telescope nr San Diego. It seems a little odd that ESO is claiming to see something that has never been seen before. And if we want a more detailed view we can look at: – although, admittedly, this one doesn’t cover the entire nebula…


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