NASA has released a rather amazing new image of the Cat’s Paw Nebula, a star-forming region located roughly 5,000 light-years from Earth.
The image was snapped by NASA’s infrared Spitzer Space Telescope. It was taken as part of the Galactic Legacy Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire project, or GLIMPSE, which has made the most accurate map ever of the central bar of our galaxy.
The Cat’s Paw, also called NGC 6334, is estimated to be about 80 to 90 light-years across, named for its large round features that look a bit like the toe beans of a feline paw. It’s found in the constellation of Scorpius, with estimates for its distance from us ranging from 4,200 to 5,500 light-years away.
It’s known as an emission nebula, one where high-energy photons from nearby stars ionize the gas in the nebula. And that’s how the nebula gets its more playful name, notably the existence of “gas bubbles” within it.
These are the bright red regions of the image you can see, caused as newborn stars heat up the gas surrounding them. The green regions are where hot stars have collided with molecules called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and caused them to fluoresce.
The bubbles can even “burst”, according to NASA, and create a U-shaped feature where one side of the bubble appears to be open. A second image of the nebula, below, shows one of these features on the right-hand side.
Spitzer makes images like these possible as it can peer through dust and gas by imaging in infrared. The first image was taken by both the Multiband Imaging Photometer (MIPS) and the Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) on Spitzer, while the second was just taken by the latter. The MIPS has an advantage of being able to collect light from dust that has been warmed by hot gas and stars.
But even these cameras can’t see everything. NASA noted that the black regions of both images “are regions of gas and dust so dense, not even infrared light can pass through them.” They added these could even be the birthplace of new stars.
The Cat’s Paw has an unlikely companion, too. It sits near another star-forming region off to the left of these images, called NGC 6357, but also known as the Lobster Nebula. Delicious.