Thalassarche

The Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) imaged by the Wide Field Imager camera at the ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.

The Helix is a planetary nebula, the shed gaseous envelope of a sunlike star that has passed its red giant phase on its way to becoming a white dwarf. The intense ultraviolet radiation of the originating star ionizes the gas it has shed to create this glow. 

Planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets, but were so named by William Herschel because their appearance in his telescope was similar to that of his newly discovered planet, Uranus. Any planets that may have been around the star that originates a planetary nebula will have been vaporized in its giant phase, or expelled from the system by the star’s loss of mass and therefore lower gravitational pull. But the gaseous envelope is laden with the elements fused by the star in its lifetime, and thus becomes the seeds of new generations of stars and their own planetary systems.

Our Sun is destined to end its life with a planetary nebula. What Earth’s ultimate fate will be in that time is unclear, as it is not known whether it will be vaporized like Mercury and Venus, or if it will be left to drift out of the lower gravity of the system. But don’t let that keep you up at night: humans have barely existed for a million years, and it will be five billion years until the Sun’s fate becomes an immediate concern.