Image Tour: The Helix Nebula

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Helix Nebula is a shell of gas expelled by a dying star, which casts off hydrogen and oxygen gas.

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with NASA’s Universe of Learning partners: Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Sonoma State University

  • Images of the Helix Nebula: STScI


 Text, The Helix Nebula, Image Tour. A photo of the nebula. 

Fast Facts, Location, Constellation Aquarius, the Water Bearer. Distance From Earth, 650 light-years. Size, 5.1 light-years across. Telescope, Hubble Space Telescope. 

The Helix Nebula, a favorite target for amateur astronomers, is one of the closest planetary nebulae to Earth. Planetary nebulae are shells of gas expelled by dying stars. 

A bar appears at the bottom with a list of stops, and a box highlights the first stop on the list. 

Text, Tour Stops, Shells of Gas. 

When a star with a mass similar to our Sun dies, it ejects its outer layers over the course of about 10,000 years. 

A translucent example of the outer layer appears briefly then fades. 

Text, The hot, exposed core of the star irradiates the gas, causing it to glow. 

The box on the tour bar highlights the next stop. Text, Hydrogen Atoms. Hydrogen atoms, heated by the star in the center of the nebula, glow red. Two labels mark the red clouds around the nebula. Text, Hydrogen. 

The box on the tour bar highlights the next stop. Text, Oxygen Atoms. Oxygen atoms, shown here in blue for easy visibility and contrast, glow in the heat of the nebula's central star. A white circle of rotating lines. Text, Central Star. Two labels mark the blue center. Text, Oxygen, 

The box on the tour bar highlights the next stop. Text, Comet-like Tendrils. A hot, fast, stellar wind from the exposed core of the star plows into colder shells of gas and dust cast off earlier by the star. Thousands of tendrils of gas, resembling comets, form as a result of the collision. Th tendrils point toward the nebula's central star. 

A smaller picture of the nebula appears in the bottom right. 

The box on the tour bar highlights the next stop. Text, Complex Shape. The Helix Nebula appears to have a donut shape, but new information suggests that the nebula is actually made of two, nearly perpendicular disks of dust and gas, as shown in this artist's conception. 

Text, Illustration. 

The bar re-appears at the bottom with a list of stops, Text, Shells of Gas, Hydrogen Atoms, Oxygen Atoms, Comet-like Tendrils, Complex Shape.