A new infrared image taken with one of the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) most advanced telescope recently revealed the Helix Nebula in a new light. The photo is indeed unlike anything we've seen before, and the ESO astronomy group is extremely happy with the way it turned out.
There's no doubt about it, the planetary nebula indeed looks like a giant eye in space, complete with extremely-fine details. Capturing all these data was only made possible through the use of the ESO Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA).
The 4.1-meter telescope is located in Chile, at the Paranal Observatory, and was inaugurated in December 2009. Since then, it has captured some amazing views of the Universe, but its latest is by far the most remarkable, scientists agree.
Thanks to its remarkable piercing power, the observatory was able to pierce right through the thick layers of cosmic dust and interstellar gas obscuring the nebula, and imaged its most intimate structures.
One can easily discern the thin tendrils of gas that make up what looks exactly like the pupil of an eye. When observed in optical wavelengths, these cold nebular gas filaments are invisible. An additional reason for why the Helix Nebula reveals its secrets is that it's very close by.
Astronomers catalog it as a planetary nebula, but this classification has nothing to do with planets. The name stuck to this class of structures after early astronomers thought they were viewing large gas giants through their primitive telescopes.
In the particular case of the Helix Nebula, which is also known by the less-catchy name of NGC 7293, the mystery surrounding it comes from the fact that it appears very large even on small telescopes, while at the same time remaining very faint. It is located no more than 700 light-years away.
“Even though they look tiny, these strands of molecular hydrogen, known as cometary knots, are about the size of our Solar System,” a recent statement from ESO investigators reveals.
“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,” the document goes on to say.
ESO is celebrating its 50th anniversary throughout 2012, which means that we could expect a lot more observations of this type by the end of the year.