A stunning new image of the Cat's Paw Nebula reveals a region at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy where new stars are being born at a furious pace.
The nebula, a cloud of interstellar gas and dust, is a cosmic nursery where new stars are ushered into being as these materials mix and condense.
Also known as NGC 6334, the Cat's Paw is thought to hold several tens of thousands of stars. Among them are freshly minted, brilliant blue stars — each nearly 10 times the mass of our sun and born within the last few million years.
"NGC 6334 is one of the most active nurseries of massive stars in our galaxy," researchers said in a European Southern Observatory statement.
The new photos were taken with the Wide Field Imager instrument at the 2.2-metre MPG/ESO telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. The view achieves its stunning pinks and purples by combining images taken through blue, green and red filters, as well as a special filter designed to let through the light of glowing hydrogen.
The nebula appears red because its blue and green light are scattered and absorbed more efficiently by material between the nebula and Earth. The red light comes predominantly from hydrogen gas glowing under the intense glare of hot young stars.
The roiling, red bubble in the lower right part of the image may be a star expelling a large amount of matter at high speed as it nears the end of its life, scientists said in a statement. Another possibility is that the star has already died, and we are seeing the remnants left behind after it exploded, they added.
The Cat's Paw Nebula is about 5,500 light-years away from Earth, in the direction of the constellation Scorpius (the Scorpion). It extends about 50 light-years across, and covers an area on the sky slightly larger than the full moon.