In a Different Light: Helix Nebula

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View the Helix Nebula in a variety of wavelengths of light and understand what we can learn from each. 

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with NASA’s Universe of Learning partners: Caltech/IPAC, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and Sonoma State University.
  • Ground-based Digitized Sky Survey image: ESO, Digitized Sky Survey 2
  • Hubble Space Telescope and National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) image: NASA, NOAO, ESA, the Hubble Helix Nebula Team, M. Meixner (STScI), and T.A. Rector (NRAO)
  • Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) Mission image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSC
  • Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) image: Jesse Bublitz and Dr. Joel Kastner, Rochester Institute of Technology
  • Chandra X-ray Observatory image: NASA/CXC/SAO
  • Spitzer Space Telescope image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/K. Su (Univ. of Arizona)
  • Multi-wavelength image: NASA/STScI

Written by Claire Blome
Designed by Leah Hustak
Editorial and design input from Jesse Bublitz and Dr. Joel Kastner, Rochester Institute of Technology; Margaret W. Carruthers; Dr. Quyen Hart; and Timothy Rhue II
Music courtesy of Associated Production Music


 Text, in a different light. Helix Nebula. Electromagnetic spectrum. An image of a ring shaped nebula made of clouds in hues of red, blue, green, and yellow against a backdrop of stars in space. Text, Helix Nebula, NGC 7293. Quick facts, Distance 700 light years. Constellation, Aquarius. Location, Milky Way galaxy. Some stars end their lives as planetary nebulas, transforming into gorgeous presentations of color. In the 1700s, observers using small telescopes thought that planetary nebulas, many of which have round disk-like shapes, resembled planets. An image of the Helix Nebula's location in the constellation Aquarius in the sky. A ground-based view of the nebula, a pale circular cloud. Text, The term is a misnomer. These objects have no physical connection to planets. Instead, the central star in a planetary nebula is expelling its outer layers as gaseous wind, setting the surrounding gas aglow as seen in the Helix Nebula. 

A clearer image of the ring-shaped nebula, its edges glowing reddish orange and center a pale blue. Text, Visible light. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope shows thousands of comet-like filaments that likely formed when hot stellar winds plowed into colder shells of gas and dust surrounding the star. Hundreds of small bumps pushing inward in the ring around the nebula's center are highlighted. Text, the filaments are embedded along the inner rim of these shells and point to the dim central star which is difficult to spot in visible light. The small white star is circled in the center of the nebula. White dwarf star. A closer image of the center of the nebula, a shining white point ringed with blueish clouds and yellow dots of stars. Ultraviolet light. Text, In ultraviolet light, it is easy to pick out the white dwarf star at the center of the nebula, which dominates this image from NASA's Galex mission. The star's ultraviolet radiation also lights up the surrounding shells of gas. 

Data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory reveals that the star at the center of the Helix Nebula emits both higher and lower energy X-rays. An image of purple dots glowing on a black field. X-ray light. Text, Most planetary nebulas only emit lower energy X-rays. The presence of higher energy X-rays suggests that nearby material is falling into the star, causing outbursts or perhaps hints at the presence of a second companion star. 

Zooming in on the edges of the blue central ring of the nebula where small particles push inward. One of them glows purplish red under radio frequency. Text, Radio emissions from the Atacama large millimeter submillimeter Array, Alma, show the coldest densest gas and dust within the filaments. 

This gives researchers a direct view of the material that the dying star is returning to interstellar space. 

Zooming out from the nebula. The light changes from visible to infrared, and the nebula becomes a bright red glowing center ringed by blue green. Text, infrared light, like visible and ultraviolet light, reveals atoms in the Helix Nebula being ripped apart by radiation shown in blue. Data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope also demonstrate how dust, shown in red, persists in the planetary nebula. 

The nebula as seen in a combination of infrared, visible, ultraviolet, and X-ray light laid over each other, an array of colored clouds. Text, All of these views show the Helix Nebula from one angle. It's actually more similar to a cylinder than a bubble, which means there's so much more to learn about this object. Each observation of the Helix Nebula gives researchers new information, and can be combined with the others to improve our understanding of the star, gas, and dust within.