Stunning NASA Photo Captures A ‘Space Butterfly’ Taking Flight In The Distant Cosmos

This fascinating structure is a bustling star-forming nebula, recently photographed by Spitzer.

The butterfly-shaped nebula known as W40, imaged by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

This fascinating structure is a bustling star-forming nebula, recently photographed by Spitzer.

Some 1,400 light-years from Earth, a cosmic “butterfly” is spreading its wings in the vastness of space. Nestled within the Serpens Cauda constellation (“Serpent Tail”), this unusual celestial object is what astronomers call a diffuse nebula – a hazy cloud of interstellar gas and dust that is constantly churning out new stars.

Known as Westerhout 40, or W40, for short, this intriguing nebula resembles a butterfly in flight. Its tenuous streams of gas and dust expand outward from within the center of the nebula on both sides of the ethereal structure, mirroring the stretched wings of a butterfly as it prepares to take to the air.

While it is not uncommon for nebulae to take whimsical shapes that conjure up familiar imagery – the cosmos is filled with such magnificent structures, including the Cosmic Bat nebula, the Heart and Soul nebulae, the Witch Head nebula, and the Skull and Crossbones nebula, to name a few – this particular nebula stands out for one important reason. Together with the famous Orion nebula, W40 is among the nearest star-forming regions that give birth to massive stars, ones packing more than 10 times the mass of the sun, explains NASA.

This fascinating nebula was recently photographed by the agency’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which captured a stunning infrared image of W40 with the help of its IRAC instrument (Infrared Array Camera). Unveiled by NASA on Wednesday, the awe-inspiring photo shows the butterfly-shaped nebula sprawling its red glittering wings in the darkness of the cosmic night.

This not the first time that the Spitzer telescope has set eyes on W40. The spacecraft has previously spied on the nebula in 2015, capturing detailed photos of its ghostly tendrils of gas and dust, both at the beginning and at the end of the year.

The curious thing about this nebula is that it owes its butterfly shape to the turbulent activity of its biggest stars.

W40 is first and foremost a stellar nursery, one brimming with glimmering newborn stars that are forged from the nebula’s swirling clouds of gas and dust. As they spark into existence, these baby stars ignite the clouds of material from which they took shape, setting the nebula aglow with their luminous glare.

The most massive of these stars spew out radiation and stellar winds that heat up the pressurized gas around them, causing it to expand into space and form bubbles. This carves the nebula’s giant clouds of material into unusual shapes and ultimately ends up dispersing the gas and dust and slowing down – or even hindering – the formation of new stars.

“Besides being beautiful, W40 exemplifies how the formation of stars results in the destruction of the very clouds that helped create them,” notes NASA.

Composite image of nebula W40, photographed by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory in February of 2015.
Composite image of nebula W40, photographed by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory in February of 2015. NASA/CXC/Spitzer / Wikimedia Commons
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The structure’s iconic butterfly wings were shaped by W40’s largest and most massive stars, those dwelling in a dense cluster located at the heart of the nebula. These central stars in W40 are very young in astronomical terms and have only been around for less than a few million years.

“The hottest, most massive of these stars, W40 IRS 1a, lies near the center of the star cluster,” NASA says.

As they burst into being and began reshaping the material around them, these stars have pushed the gas and dust clouds further out from the star-birthing core of the nebula, resulting in its distinctive butterfly-wing shape.

A similar phenomenon has been observed by Spitzer within the more distant Cat’s Paw nebula, in which baby stars are constantly blowing bubbles that fuel the structure’s bulbous features, making it resemble a massive feline paw, as previously reported by The Inquisitr.

Mosaic image of the star-forming region in nebula W40, photographed by Spitzer's IRAC camera in December of 2015.
Mosaic image of the star-forming region in nebula W40, photographed by Spitzer’s IRAC camera in December of 2015. NASA/Spitzer / Wikimedia Commons/Resized