The VISTA telescope captured this unusual view of the Helix Nebula, a planetary nebula located 700 light-years away. While bringing to light a rich background of stars and galaxies, the telescope's infrared vision also reveals strands of cold nebular gas that are mostly obscured in visible images of the Helix.
Credit: ESO/VISTA/J. Emerson. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

The European Southern Observatory used its VISTA telescope in Chile to capture a view of the planetary nebula that is usually invisible to the human eye. The telescope's sensors are extremely sensitive to infrared light, which allowed it to pick up previously unknown strands of cold, thinly-spread gas.

This gas is mostly hidden in pictures taken in visible light, obscured by the bright blue glare of ultraviolet light from the Helix's hot central star. VISTA's images, however, reveal the nebula's delicate structure.

  • The VISTA telescope captured this unusual view of the Helix Nebula, a planetary nebula located 700 light-years away. While bringing to light a rich background of stars and galaxies, the telescope's infrared vision also reveals strands of cold nebular gas that are mostly obscured in visible images of the Helix.
    Credit: ESO/VISTA/J. Emerson. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit
  • Visible-light pictures of the Helix Nebula, such as this one captured by NASA's Hubble telescope, are dominated by the bright blue glare of the hot central star, which obscures the outer strands of cool gas.
    Credit: NASA, NOAO, ESA, the Hubble Helix Nebula Team, M. Meixner (STScI), and T.A. Rector (NRAO)
  • This comparison shows the new view of the Helix Nebula and the more familiar view in visible light (right) side by side.
    Credit: ESO/VISTA/J. Emerson. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit
  • This close-up shows comet-like filaments along part of the Helix Nebula's red and blue gas ring.
    Credit: NASA, NOAO, ESA, the Hubble Helix Nebula Team, M. Meixner (STScI), and T.A. Rector (NRAO)
  • Astronomers are not sure how the strands of gas spotted around the Helix Nebula, which are known as cometary knots, were formed. This illustration presents one possible scenario for stars that collapse and become red giants. The Helix Nebula's star is in the process of becoming a white dwarf.
    Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)
  • This visible-light image of the region around the Helix Nebula was created from photographs taken through red and blue filters. The nebula appears prominently at the center of the image, and many faint galaxies are also visible.
    Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgment: Davide De Martin
  • This chart shows the location of the Helix Nebula within the constellation of Aquarius, marked with a red circle. The nebula is large but very faint, and can be seen with binoculars or a small telescope only when the sky is exceptionally dark and clear.
    Credit: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope
  • The Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) is located at the Paranal Observatory, on the Paranal mountain in northern Chile.
    Credit: ESO/H.H.Heyer
  • VISTA is the largest survey telescope in the world and it is dedicated to mapping the sky at near-infrared wavelengths. Its primary mirror is 4.1 meters in diameter and is the most highly curved of its size.
    Credit: G. Hüdepohl / ESO

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