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A paw-print of celestial birth
Posted: 20 January 2010

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ESO has today released a beautiful new image of the Cat's Paw Nebula, a complex region of star formation.

A new portrait of the Cat's Paw Nebula from ESO. The whole gas cloud is about 50 light years across. Image: ESO.

The Cat's Paw Nebula, or NGC 6334 lies 5,500 light years away towards the constellation Scorpius, and covers an area slightly larger than the disc of the full Moon. So named because the glowing gas clouds resemble a gigantic feline paw-print, the nebula is one of the most active stellar nurseries in our Galaxy.

The whole gas cloud is about 50 light-years across and appears red from glowing hydrogen gas characteristic of hot newborn stars. It is thought that the nebula may contain several tens of thousands of stars – including brilliant blue stars just a few million years old and up to ten times the mass of our Sun – but many are obscured from view, buried deep in the dust clouds. Dust lanes and dark pillars of gas are likely incubating the next generation of stars.

A wide-field view of NGC 6334 reveals the paw print outline with greater clarity. Image: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2.

A red blister of gas swells in the lower right part of the image, and is thought either to be a star expelling large amounts of matter at high speed as it nears the end of its life or the remnant of a star that already has exploded.

The new image was created from images taken with the Wide Field Imager (WFI) instrument on the 2.2-metre MPG/ESO telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile 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.