Curiouser and curiouser: Image of ‘smiling cat’ nebula revealed

28 Jun 2023

Part of the Sh2-284 nebula that looks like a smiling cat. Image: ESO/VPHAS+ team (CC BY 4.0)

Nestled in the distant Monoceros constellation is a giant cloud of orange and red ‘teeming’ with young stars.

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has released an image of a nebula far away “in spectacular detail” which, when seen as a whole, bears resemblance to the face of a smiling cat.

Captured using the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the image – a cloud of orange and red – is part of the Sh2-284 nebula located approximately 15,000 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Monoceros.

According to the ESO, Sh2-284 is a stellar nursery “teeming with young stars” as gas and dust within the vast region, which spans 150 light-years in breadth, clump together to form new suns.

The orange and red hues in the nebula are caused by the ionisation of hydrogen gas in the cloud because of powerful radiation and winds produced by Dolidze 25, a cluster of young stars that can be seen under the apparent cat’s nose in the centre of the brightest part of the nebula.

The VST is owned by the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy and is dedicated to mapping the southern sky in visible light and makes use of a 256m-pixel camera, which is specially designed to take very wide-field images.

Hosted at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile, the VST has been used to study around 500m objects in the Milky Way, helping scientists better understand the birth, life and eventual death of stars within our own galaxy.

“The winds from the central cluster of stars push away the gas and dust in the nebula, hollowing out its centre. As the winds encounter denser pockets of material, these offer more resistance meaning that the areas around them are eroded away first,” the ESO wrote in a release.

“This creates several pillars that can be seen along the edges of Sh2-284 pointing at the centre of the nebula, such as the one on the right-hand side of the frame.

“While these pillars might look small in the image, they are in fact several light-years wide and contain vast amounts of gas and dust out of which new stars form.”

The ESO was recently involved in observing the aftermath NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, which completed its 10-month journey last September when it successfully collided with the asteroid Dimorphos in humanity’s first planetary defence test.

Last month, a team of researchers using the VLT in Chile discovered three distant gas clouds in the early universe that they believe are remnants of explosions of the very first stars ever formed.

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Part of the Sh2-284 nebula that looks like a smiling cat. Image: ESO/VPHAS+ team (CC BY 4.0)

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic