Richard Hook ESO Public Information Officer Garching bei München, Germany
Astronomers have for a long time studied the glowing, cosmic clouds of gas and dust catalogued as NGC 6334 and NGC 6357, this gigantic new image from ESO’s Very Large Telescope Survey Telescope being only the most recent one. With around two billion pixels this is one of the largest images ever released by ESO. The evocative shapes of the clouds have led to their memorable names: the Cat’s Paw Nebula and the Lobster Nebula, respectively. Credit: ES
NGC 6334 is located about 5500 light-years away from Earth, while NGC 6357 is more remote, at a distance of 8000 light-years. Both are in the constellation of Scorpius (The Scorpion), near the tip of its stinging tail.
The British scientist John Herschel first saw traces of the two objects, on consecutive nights in June 1837, during his three-year expedition to 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.
The three toepads visible to modern telescopes, as well as the claw-like regions in the nearby Lobster Nebula, are actually regions of gas — predominantly hydrogen — energised by the light of brilliant newborn stars. With masses around 10 times that of the Sun, these hot stars radiate intense ultraviolet light. When this light encounters hydrogen atoms still lingering in the stellar nursery that produced the stars, the atoms become ionised. Accordingly, the vast, cloud-like objects that glow with this light from hydrogen (and other) atoms are known as emission nebulae.