Just in time for Halloween, a new image from NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer puts some fangs on the Pacman Nebula.
The nebula in the constellation Cassiopeia, formally known as NGC 281, was given its more whimsical nickname years ago because, in visible light, it looks like the dot-chomping character from the "Pac-Man" video game (as you can see below in the picture from the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona).
NGC 281 is a cloud of gas and dust about 9,200 light-years from Earth, with a cluster of hot stars in the center. The dust obscures much of the light coming from the central cluster, designated IC 1590, particularly in the dark, dusty wedge that represents the Pacman's "mouth."
The newly released infrared view from WISE cuts through the murk and reveals the hot stars at the center of the reddish-greenish nebula. The stars' ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds are blasting away at the surrounding dust from the inside out, giving the nebula a shell-like appearnce. Around the inner lining of the shell, you can see lots of eroded pillars of dust that point toward the center. Contained within the tips of those pillars are infant stars, squeezed into existence by the pressure of the radiation and the winds.
You can think of those jagged pillars as the teeth of the Pacman. And if they also happen to look like a jack o' lantern's teeth, so much the better. After all, this is the weekend for things that go bump (or, in this case, bang) in the night.
More cosmic treats for Halloween weekend:
- Vampire stars and other spooky space happenings
- Skywatching highlights for Halloween
- Slideshow: Month in Space Pictures
- Happy Halloween from Cassini
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