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Star Death: Helix Nebula

Expelling mass as gaseous wind Full Story Below

An eye-shaped region with a glowing center
An oval with a pale center and fire-like outline An oval with a pale center and fire-like outline
A bright center surrounded by concentric, dimming circles A bright center surrounded by concentric, dimming circles
Scattered bright dots on a black background Scattered bright dots on a black background
Variegated eye-shaped image with a central glowing circle Variegated eye-shaped image with a central glowing circle
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The dying star in this planetary nebula expelled its outer layers as gaseous wind, which are set aglow by its intense radiation.

Thousands of comet-like filaments likely formed when hot stellar winds and radiation plowed into colder shells of gas and dust.

The central white dwarf and the surrounding shells of gas shine brightest in ultraviolet because they are so hot.

X-ray light highlights only the star at the center of the Helix Nebula as well as emissions from the cores of distant galaxies.

The Helix Nebula, which has small and large features as well as cooler and hotter components, is a major dust factory that seeds the space around it.

Infrared
Visible
Ultraviolet
X-ray
Multi-wavelength

Star Death: Helix Nebula

Tracing the final stages of a star’s life by watching it expel material.

Some stars die slowly, giving off puffs of gas and dust known as planetary nebulas to reveal small white dwarfs. Much larger stars die suddenly in powerful explosions known as supernovas, blasting gas, dust, and energy out in all directions as they collapse to form tiny neutron stars or black holes. The gas and dust expelled by dying stars eventually combines with the remains of others to form new stars, planets, and moons.

As the dying star at the center of the Helix Nebula exhausted its fuel, it threw off its outer layers as a gaseous wind and transformed into a white dwarf. As the glowing shells of gas expand over 10,000 years, they eventually thin out and become part of the interstellar medium. Planetary nebulas provide a snapshot of a transitional phase in the life and death of a star.

Quick Facts: Helix Nebula

Also known as: NGC 7293

Type of object: Planetary nebula

Distance from Earth: 700 light-years

Location in the sky: Aquarius Constellation

Did you know: The Helix Nebula is more similar to a cylinder than a bubble—one end is pointing directly at Earth.

Explore More About Star Death

Find out more with these additional resources from NASA’s Universe of Learning

Astropix AstroPix
Images of star death, supernovas, and planetary nebulas
Universe unplugged Universe Unplugged
When Stars Go Boom starring Jerrika Hinton and Wil Wheaton
Cassiopeia 3D Model Cassiopeia A
How to hold a dead star in your hand
Astro vis Astroviz
A supernova over the course of twenty years

Credits: Helix Nebula

Infrared image from Spitzer Space Telescope: NASA/JPL-Caltech/K. Su (Univ. of Arizona)

Visible light image from the Hubble Space Telescope and National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO): NASA, NOAO, ESA, the Hubble Helix Nebula Team, M. Meixner (STScI), and T. A. Rector (NRAO)

Ultraviolet light image from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) Mission: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSC

X-ray light image from the Chandra X-ray Observatory: NASA/CXC/SAO

Multi-wavelength image (infrared, visible, ultraviolet, X-ray): NASA/STScI

Content development by Claire Blome, Dr. Quyen Hart, Timothy Rhue II

Design by Zena Levy

Web development by Andi James, Isaar Sadr

Subject-matter expertise provided by Dr. Kate Y. L. Su