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The "Smiling cat nebula" captured in a new, spectacular image

A spectacular, high-detailed picture of the Sh2-284 nebula – known as the “smiling cat nebula” – has recently been captured by the VLT Survey Telescope, hosted by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

This nebula, resembling the face of a cat smiling down from the sky, is teeming with young stars, as gas and dust within it gathers together to form new suns.

The Sh2-284 nebula is a vast region consisting of gas and dust located about 15,000 light years away from Earth in the constellation Monoceros. Its brightest part, which is visible in the newly captured image, measures approximately 150 light years, or 1,400 trillion kilometers, across. 

Special features of the nebula

Located in the center of this part – under the “cat’s nose” – is a cluster of young stars called Dolidze 25 that produces massive amounts of strong winds and radiation.

According to the experts, this radiation is powerful enough to ionize the hydrogen from the cloud and produce its bright red and orange colors.

By pushing away the gas and dust in the nebula, the strong winds from the central cluster of stars hollow out its center. 

Moreover, as they encounter denser pockets of material which offer more resistance, these winds erode away the areas around them first, creating several pillars which can be observed along the edges of the nebula. 

Although these pillars look relatively small in the image, they are actually several light years wide and contain vast amounts of dust and gas from which new stars emerge.

More about the image

The scientists succeeded in creating this extraordinary image using data from the VLT Survey Telescope (VST), which is hosted at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile and is owned by the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) in Italy.

VST is a crucial tool for mapping the southern sky in visible light by employing a 256-million-pixel camera specifically designed to take wide-field images. 

The new image is part of the VST Photometric Hα Survey of the Southern Galactic Plane and Bulge (VPHAS+), which has already examined over 500 million astronomical objects in our galaxy, increasing our understanding of the birth, life, and eventual death of stars from the Milky Way.

What is a nebula?

A nebula (plural: nebulae or nebulas) is a vast cloud of gas and dust in outer space, visible in the night sky either as an indistinct bright patch or as a dark silhouette against other luminous matter. Nebulae are often the birthplaces of stars, formed from the gravitational collapse of gas within the nebula.

Nebulae can be categorized into different types based on their characteristics:

Emission nebulae

These are often called H II regions as they are largely composed of ionized hydrogen. They are typically glowing, hot clouds of gas energized by the ultraviolet light from hot, young stars within them. The most famous example of an emission nebula is the Orion Nebula.

Reflection nebulae

These nebulae do not emit light themselves, but are near enough to stars that they reflect the light from those stars. They often appear blue because blue light is scattered more than other colors.

Dark nebulae

These are dense clouds of gas and dust that block the light from stars and other celestial objects behind them. They are visible because they create voids in the star field.

Planetary nebulae

This is a somewhat misleading name, as these have nothing to do with planets. These are shells of gas thrown off by stars late in their life cycle, typically red giants undergoing the transition to white dwarfs.

Supernova remnants

These are complex, often filamentary, clouds of gas and dust formed from the material ejected during a supernova explosion, a stellar death event.

Each type of nebula has different processes at work and tells astronomers different things about the life cycles of stars and the composition of the universe.

Image Credit: ESO/VPHAS+ team. Acknowledgement: CASU


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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