While there are many famous nebulae in the Milky Way, one of the most easily recognizable is the Cat’s Paw Nebula. This glowing cloud of interstellar gas and dust gets its name from its bulbous features — which create the impression of a feline footprint and give the nebula so much personality.
Nestled in the Scorpius constellation, the Cat’s Paw Nebula is a regular stellar nursery — an active star birth region of our galaxy. Located between 4,200 to 5,500 light-years from Earth, this fascinating nebula is known scientifically as NGC 6334 — but it also goes by the name of Bear Claw Nebula, the Inquisitr previously reported.
Home to massive stars 10 times bigger than our sun, the nebula hosts a large star-forming region estimated to be between 80 and 90 light-years wide. And, according to NASA, these newborn stars are what gives the Cat’s Paw Nebula its distinctive appearance.
Astronomers speculate that the giant bubbles which make up the nebula could actually be heated gas — continuously accumulating inside the nebula as it churns out new stars.
“After gas and dust inside the nebula collapse to form stars, the stars may in turn heat up the pressurized gas surrounding them, causing it to expand into space and create bubbles,” explained space agency officials.
In other words, the massive features that give the Cat’s Paw Nebula its iconic look might be created by baby stars “blowing bubbles” inside the nebula.
“Toe beans! Spitzer images newborn stars blowing bubbles in the Cat’s Paw Nebula,” NASA tweeted yesterday, posting a spectacular photo of this part of the galaxy.
The image in question was captured by the Spitzer Space Telescope in infrared light and features a myriad of baby stars, revealing that the Cat’s Paw Nebula is bursting with activity.
Compiled from data gathered by two instruments aboard the telescope — the Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) and the Multiband Imaging Photometer (MIPS) — the stunning snapshot showcases the bright red bubbles of heated gas “framed by green clouds” floating inside the nebula.
As NASA pointed out, the red formations represent “dust that has been warmed by the hot gas and the light from nearby stars.” Meanwhile, the green areas are populated by large molecules called “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,” and which turned fluorescent under the effect of radiation emitted by hot stars.
In another photo of the Cat’s Paw Nebula — this time taken by IRAC alone — other features emerge from the sinuous clouds of interstellar dust and gas.
This second snapshot brings into focus peculiar U-shaped formations — created when the gas bubbles occasionally burst.
These features are intertwined with dark filaments that seem to run horizontally through the nebula. These are particularly dense regions of gas and dust — so dense that not even infrared light can pass through them, explains NASA.