This is the Helix Nebula, also called "The Helix," or NGC 7293 in the New General Catalog. It appears in the constellation Aquarius and resides 700 light-years from Earth, which means that if you were to point a really powerful flashlight at it and hit the switch, it would take 255,000 days for that light to get there. That's thirty-six-thousand four-hundred weeks. Seven hundred years.
But the most impressive thing about it isn't its distance from us. The Helix is one stunning example of what's called a planetary nebula, the massive cloud of ionized gas that three-billion-year-old stars become in their last throes, after the red giant stage, and before settling as a remnant star - a white dwarf - for eternity.
Why's it called a "planetary nebula," if it was in fact once a massive star? Because when we first discovered them, these things looked like large gas planets, like Jupiter. What do you expect? Hundreds of years ago, all we had were itty-bitty ground-based optics. Today, with telescopes like the Hubble orbiting in space, there's no mistaking it.
But I love that it has kept the name - it's a planetary nebula. Like so many other terms in astronomy, it bespeaks the mystery, romance and mythology so deeply embedded in this outlandish search for gigantic objective truths. The stars are infinite, and perfect. We are only human.
Through the odd workings of the Internet, the Helix Nebula has gained a reputation as something else: the Eye of God. That's silly, I thought at first. But look at it again. I did, and it gave me chills.
+ Click here for more ridiculous pictures of galaxies, nebulae, and globular clusters.