Helix Nebula Glows Like Giant Golden Eye

The Helix Nebula glows like a giant golden eye in the sky in the image, released on January 19, 2012 by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). This picture, taken in infrared light, reveals strands of cold nebular gas that are invisible in images taken in visible light, and brings to light a rich background of stars and galaxies. The picture was captured by ESO’s VISTA telescope, at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. The Helix Nebula is one of the closest and most remarkable examples of a planetary nebula. The Helix Nebula lies in the constellation of Aquarius, 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, before becoming a white dwarf, the tiny blue dot seen at the centre of the image. The nebula itself is a complex object composed of dust, ionized 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 white dwarf star. 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 infrared view since red molecular gas can be seen across much of the image.