If you ever needed proof that the universe loves cats, this might be it. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) just unveiled a stunning new image of a nebula that resembles a grinning cat in the night sky.
The image showcases the Sh2-284 nebula, a vast stellar nursery located approximately 15,000 light-years from Earth in the Monoceros constellation. If you look carefully and sort of half close your eyes, you can see a large mouth, nose, eyes and even whiskers.
The Sh2-284 nebula, known for its vibrant orange and red hues, is teeming with young stars that are formed as gas and dust within the nebula fuse to create new suns. At the nebula’s heart lies Dolidze 25, a cluster of young stars emitting powerful radiation and winds. This radiation is potent enough to ionize the hydrogen gas present in the nebula, giving rise to its striking colours.
The winds (shown as arrows in the image below) emanating from Dolidze 25 have a transformative effect on the nebula. They push away the surrounding gas and dust, creating a hollowed-out centre. As the winds encounter denser pockets of material, they first erode the areas around them, forming distinctive pillars (dotted lines) that point toward the centre of the Sh2-284 nebula. These pillars, visible along the nebula’s edges, are several light-years wide and contain substantial amounts of gas and dust that serve as the foundation for the birth of new stars.
The image was generated using data from the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. The VST, equipped with a specialized 256-million-pixel camera for wide-field imaging, is dedicated to mapping the visible light of the southern sky.
The image is part of the VST Photometric Hα Survey of the Southern Galactic Plane and Bulge (VPHAS+), which has provided valuable insights into approximately 500 million celestial objects within our Milky Way galaxy, enhancing our understanding of the life cycle of stars.
Remarkably, the celestial feline depicted in the image resembles the Cheshire Cat from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, famous for its enigmatic grin. However, this cosmic cat’s smile is even wider, spanning approximately 150 light-years.
The Sh2-284 nebula’s stunning portrayal shows the awe-inspiring processes of star formation and the intricate interplay between radiation, winds, and matter within these stellar nurseries. As astronomers continue to explore the depths of the universe, capturing such breathtaking images is a testament to the beauty and complexity beyond planet Earth.