The Cat’s Paw Nebula

The Cat’s Paw Nebula.

NGC 6334, also known as the Cat’s Paw Nebula, Bear Claw Nebula and Gum 64, is one definition of weird: a bubbling mix of nebulous porridge about 50 light-years across, that just may be one of the most productive star-forming regions in the Milky Way. It was discovered by astronomer John Herschel in 1837, who observed it from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. At the time, the limited telescopic power available to Herschel, who was observing visually, only allowed him to document the brightest “toepad” of the Cat’s Paw Nebula. It was to be many decades before the true shapes of the nebulae became apparent in photographs — and their popular names coined.

This chart of the bright constellation of Scorpius (The Scorpion) shows the two star formation regions, NGC 6334 (top, the Cat’s Paw Nebula) and NGC 6357 (the Lobster Nebula) are marked with red circles.

A study conducted by researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and released in 2013 suggests that this roiling complex, some 5,500 light-years away in the constellation Scorpius, is undergoing a tremendous episode of starburst in its central region; ten of thousands of newborn stars may have already burst onto the scene along a central radial filament in what astronomers are calling an interstellar ‘baby boom.’ The Cat’s Paw Nebula plays host to tens of thousands of new stars and houses about 200,000 suns’ worth of material needed for star formation. These giant gas clouds are made mostly of hydrogen and are shrouding hot young stars that are 10 times heavier than the Sun. They emit a lot of ultraviolet light which is absorbed by the hydrogen and then re-emitted as a deep-red light. When this light encounters hydrogen atoms still lingering in the stellar nursery that produced the stars, the atoms become ionized. Accordingly, the vast, cloud-like objects that glow with this light from hydrogen (and other) atoms are known as emission nebulae.

Credits: Astronomy, ESO, IFL Science.