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 Helix Nebula is one of the closest and most remarkable examples of a planetary nebula . 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 white dwarf star 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.
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.
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 infrared light. The 4.1-metre telescope is also able to detect an impressive array of background stars and galaxies.
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 molecular gas. It is currently unclear how the cometary knots may have originated.
 Planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. This confusing name arose because many of them show small bright discs when observed visually and resemble the outer planets in the Solar System, such as Uranus and Neptune. The Helix Nebula, which also bears the catalogue number NGC 7293, is unusual as it appears very large, but also very faint, when viewed through a small telescope.
The year 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the European Southern Observatory (ESO). ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world's most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world's largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 40-metre-class European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become "the world's biggest eye on the sky".
[Photos of VISTA]
ESO, La Silla, Paranal, E-ELT and Survey Telescopes Public
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