'Cosmic Eye' Photographed Staring Across Space

A spectacular "cosmic eye" has been photographed in space by a telescope in Chile, showing a distant nebula in which sunlike stars are burning themselves out.

The image of the Helix nebula, which lies 700 light years away in the constellation Aquarius, was captured with the Wide Field Imager instrument at the La Silla Observatory high above the Atacama Desert.

The Helix is a planetary nebula — a kind of stellar old people's home, in which stars at the end of their lives shed clouds of gas, often creating intricate patterns that shine with great beauty.

The Helix nebula is one of the closest planetary nebulae to Earth, but it is hard to see visually because its light is spread thinly over a large area of sky, a quarter of the size of the full Moon.

The main ring of the Helix nebula is about two light-years across, or half the distance between the Sun and the nearest star.

Around the inside of the ring, it is possible to see small blobs that resemble droplets of water, known as "cometary knots," which have faint tails that extend away from the central star.

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