Astronomers Say Cat's Paw Nebula Undergoing Star Baby Boom

Posted on June 6, 2013

Cats Paw Nebula Infrared Image

Astronomers say the Cat's Paw Nebula, also known as NGC 6334, is undergoing a star baby boom. Sarah Willis of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and Iowa State University presented a new study at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. The study found NGC 6334 contains tens of thousands of recently formed stars, more than 2,000 of which are extremely young and still trapped inside their dusty cocoons.

Willis said in a release, "NGC 6334 is forming stars at a more rapid pace than Orion - so rapidly that it appears to be undergoing what might be called a burst of star formation. It might resemble a 'mini-starburst,' similar to a scaled-down version of the spectacular bursts sometimes seen in other galaxies."

The astronomers say the cause of the baby boom in NGC 6334 isn't clear. Two processes often suggested to trigger bursts of star formation are blast waves from a nearby supernova explosion, or molecular cloud collisions when galaxies smash together. Neither of these events are evident in NGC 6334. NGC 6334 is 5,500 light-years away, but astronomers say it close enough that they are able to probe it in much greater detail than other similar young galaxies undergoing a star burst phase.

Study co-author Howard Smith of the CfA says, "Young galaxies in the early universe are small smudges of light in our telescopes, and we can only study the collective processes over the whole galaxy. Here in NGC 6334, we can count the individual stars."

The infrared image above was created using data from the Spitzer Space Teelscope and the representative-color photo of NGC 6334 below combines infrared data from the Herschel and Spitzer spacecraft and ground-based NEWFIRM instrument. You can find larger versions of both images here.

Cats Paw Nebula representative-color photo

Images: Top: S. Willis (CfA); NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSC / Bottom: S. Willis (CfA); ESA/Herschel ; NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSC; CTIO/NOAO/AURA/NSF

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