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 has small and large features as well as cooler and hotter components—and its dust seeds the space around it.
A Story Of 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
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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
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
Subject-matter expertise provided by Dr. Kate Y. L. Su
Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach