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Eye Of God Image - Hubble Telescope Email

Summary:
Email forward that includes an image described as the "Eye of God" claims the image captures a rare event that only occurs once every 3000 years. (Full commentary below.)



Status:
The image is real, but the description includes false information.

Example:(Submitted, December 2005)
Subject: FW: Hubble picture, the eye of GOD

This photo is a very rare one, taken by NASA. This kind of event occurs once in 3000 years.

This is a picture NASA took with the hubble telescope.

Called "The Eye of God".

Too awesome to delete. It is worth sharing.

Eye of God Image


God loves you and watches over you every day.




Commentary:
The image included in this email forward does indeed represent a real celestial object. However, the description that arrives with the image is inaccurate.

The picture is a composite image of the Helix Nebula and was NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day for May 10th 2003. The Helix Nebula is a planetary nebula that formed at the end of life of a star and is estimated by scientists to be as close as 450 light years from our Sun. Images taken from the Hubble telescope were combined with others taken from an Earth based observatory to form this quite compelling picture. According to information on NASA's HubbleSite:

The composite picture is a seamless blend of ultra-sharp NASA Hubble Space Telescope (HST) images combined with the wide view of the Mosaic Camera on the National Science Foundation's 0.9-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, near Tucson, Ariz.
While the image does indeed resemble a giant eye, there is no record of NASA actually referring to it as "The Eye of God". It is not clear who first called the image "The Eye of God", but the name appears to have "stuck" for obvious reasons. A number of non-NASA websites refer to the image by this name. In fact, other planetary nebulas have also been called "The Eye of God", including the Hourglass Nebula, MyCn18.

The Helix Nebula is actually a vast tunnel of glowing gases a trillion kilometres long. Since Earth's position in relation to the nebula means we are looking more or less directly into the mouth of this tunnel, Helix appears to us as an eye-like bubble rather than a cylinder.

The claim that the "event" only occurs once in three thousand years is pure nonsense. The Helix Nebula is readily viewable by scientists all the time and can even be seen by amateur astronomers using telescopes or binoculars. Naturally, due to the composite nature of the image and the high-powered telescopes and photographic equipment used to create it, the nebula is unlikely to look as compelling or as "eye-like" from the ground as it does in the emailed image.

In spite of the inaccurate description, the picture is certainly a delight to behold. One wonders why somebody felt the need to make up a nonsensical explanation to go with the picture. Such amazing natural phenomena virtually speak for themselves.

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References:
Astronomy Picture of the Day: 2003 May 10
NGC 7293:The Helix Nebula
Iridescent Glory of Nearby Planetary Nebula Showcased on Astronomy Day
Hourglass Nebula, MyCn18
The Helix Nebula


Last updated: 10th March 2010
First published: December 2005

Write-up by Brett M.Christensen