Monday, February 20, 2006

The Eye of God -- the Hoax that Wasn't

Last week, a friend of mine sent me the following pic and e-mail:
This is a picture NASA took with the hubble telescope. Called "The Eye of God". Too awesome to delete. It is worth sharing.

The e-mail also contained the usual muck about "don't break the chain," and "stare at the image for blah blah blah seconds and make a wish, blah, blah..." So, of course, skeptic that I am, I figured it was yet another in-box hoax. Intending to "set her straight," I went to my trusted hoax busters websites , and -- lo and behold -- it's real!

The authentic, composite, photograph is of the Helix Nebula. It was taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. NASA's website featured it as an Astronomy Picture of the Day on May 10, 2003. While there is no credible evidence that NASA has ever referred to the Helix Nebula as "the Eye of God," it's certainly understandable how non-astronomers came up with the name.

The Helix Nebula, a tunnel of glowing gases over a trillion miles long, is our closest example of a planetary nebula created from a dying Sun-like star. The outer gasses of the star are expelled into space. From our Earth-bound view, they appear to us as if we are looking down a helix.

What remains in the core of the nebula will eventually become a white dwarf star. It glows so fiercely that it makes the gases around it fluoresce. The Helix Nebula lies about 650 light-years away towards the constellation of Aquarius and spans about 2.5 light-years.

So, while it may or may not be "the Eye of God," it's real. Amazing -- not just for it's existence, but also for the fact that we are able to see it.

Original Image Credit: NASA, WIYN, NOAO, ESA, Hubble Helix Nebula Team, M. Meixner (STScI), & T. A. Rector (NRAO).