The nebula, located about 700 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius, belongs to a class of objects called planetary nebulae. Discovered in the 18th century, these colorful beauties were named for their resemblance to gas-giant planets like Jupiter.
Planetary nebulae are the remains of stars that once looked a lot like our sun. When sun-like stars die, they puff out their outer gaseous layers. These layers are heated by the hot core of the dead star, called a white dwarf, and shine with infrared and visible colors. Our own sun will blossom into a planetary nebula when it dies in about five billion years.
In Spitzer’s infrared view of the Helix nebula, the eye looks more like that of a green monster’s. Infrared light from the outer gaseous layers is represented in blues and greens. The white dwarf is visible as a tiny white dot in the center of the picture. The red color in the middle of the eye denotes the final layers of gas blown out when the star died.
So far, the Helix nebula is one of only a few dead-star systems in which evidence for comet survivors has been found.
This image is made up of data from Spitzer’s infrared array camera and multiband imaging photometer. Blue shows infrared light of 3.6 to 4.5 microns; green shows infrared light of 5.8 to 8 microns; and red shows infrared light of 24 microns.
Image Credit: NASA / Spitzer Infrared Telescope