The European Southern Observatory today released a stunningly detailed, colorful photo of two stellar nebulae, the Cat’s Paw Nebula and the Lobster Nebula, both in the constellation Scorpius.
Stellar nebulae are clouds of super-heated gases produced when massive stars die in supernova explosions. They emit extremely bright waves of light in infrared wavelengths produced by the dust particles inside them.
Known officially as NGC 6334, the Cat’s Paw Nebula is 5,500 light years from Earth. Its nickname comes from its bright, roundish yellow-orange features, which resemble the toe pads on a cat’s paw.
NGC 6357, nicknamed the Lobster Nebula, is 8,000 light years away. This nebula’s nickname comes from its resemblance to the pincer claw of a lobster.
Both the paw and claw features in the two nebulae are composed of hydrogen gas. They are energized by the light of hot newborn stars, each about 10 solar masses, which radiate ultraviolet light. When the ultraviolet light hits the hydrogen atoms, those atoms become energized and start to glow brightly.
Because of the new stars’ powerful ultraviolet emissions, these nebulae are classified as emission nebulae.
Both nebulae are active stellar nurseries, where numerous hot young stars are born though we cannot see their visible light because they are surrounded by dust.
ESO captured the image of both nebulae with a 256-megapixel OMEGACam camera attached to its Very Large Survey Telescope (VST), located in the Chilean desert.
Nineteenth-century British astronomer John Herschel discovered both nebulae in 1837. Because of the limits of his telescope’s power, they appeared as little more than dim smudges.
As telescopes became more advanced, scientists obtained better images of the nebulae and successfully resolved their shapes.
Today, researchers hope studying these images will help them better understand the process of star birth.
A zoomable version of the whole image, which comprises two billion pixels, is available for viewing at https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1705a/zoomable/.