'All-seeing eye' revealed in infrared

 
ESO image of the Helix Nebula The European Southern Observatory's image of the Helix Nebula

The "All-seeing Eye", or Eye of Providence, has a long history.

Its origins can be traced back to Egyptian mythology and the Eye of Horus, and it appears in both Buddhist and Hindu doctrine. The Buddha himself is often referred to as "the eye of the world", while Lord Shiva has an all-seeing third eye in his forehead that watches over everything that happens in the world.

While the Greeks went for a compound approach - Argus had a hundred eyes - Christian symbolism incorporates a single all seeing Eye of Providence, often framed in a triangle to symbolise the Holy Trinity. It even appears on the Great Seal of the United States, and on the back of a one dollar bill.

Now, it seems, astronomers are keen to get in on the act. This image, captured by the European Southern Observatory's VISTA telescope, uses infrared light to show the Helix Nebula in all its glory.

The nebula is a complex cloud of dust, ionised material and molecular gas, formed in the death throws of a star the size of our sun.

As the star collapsed to become a white dwarf (the tiny blue dot at the centre of the picture) it shed its outer layers which have radiated out in this distinctive eye-like pattern of concentric rings. While hard to see in visible wavelengths the thinly spread gas - which covers an area some four light years across - is easily captured by the 4.1 metre VISTA telescope's infrared detectors.

The picture also reveals something of the fine structure of the Helix Nebula's rings, with the cooler molecular gas clumping together into filaments spreading out from the centre.

Then again it could just be that Sauron, vanquished from middle earth, is reassembling his forces some 700 light years away in the constellation Aquarius.

 
Tom Feilden, Science correspondent, Today programme Article written by Tom Feilden Tom Feilden Science correspondent, Today

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