Cats Paw Nebula Baby Boom
June 6, 2013

Iconic Cat’s Paw Nebula May Be Experiencing A Baby Boom

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Astronomers presented research on Wednesday at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) about how the Cat's Paw Nebula is experiencing a "baby boom."

The team said the nebula, or NGC 6334, is forming stars at a more rapid pace than the Orion Nebula, which is one of the closest stellar nurseries to Earth.

"It might resemble a 'mini-starburst,' similar to a scaled-down version of the spectacular bursts sometimes seen in other galaxies," said Sarah Willis of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and Iowa State University.

The nebula contains about 200,000 suns' worth of material that is coalescing to form new stars, some up to 30 to 40 times more massive than our Sun. It houses tens of thousands of recently formed stars, more than 2,000 of which are extremely young and still trapped inside their dusty cocoons. The researchers said most of the stars forming in clusters where the stars are located are up to a thousand times closer than the stars in the Sun's neighborhood.

The cause of the Cat's Paw Nebula's baby boom is unclear, but there are two processes that trigger bursts of star formation that researchers have ruled out. These processes include blast waves from a nearby supernova explosion and molecular cloud collisions from when galaxies smash together.

Rapid star formation is often seen in luminous starburst galaxies, such as the Antennae galaxies. However, NGC 6334 is so close that astronomers are able to probe it in much greater detail, even down to actually seeing the number of individual stars of various types and ages.

Starbursts also light up galaxies in the early universe, which makes them bright enough to study. The processes that produce these bursts are equally puzzling and even harder to study because the objects appear to be small and faint.

"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," explained co-author Howard Smith of the CfA.

The astronomers used the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Blanco telescope at the Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory to study the nebula.

"Both space and groundbased observations were needed to identify the young stars," said Lori Allen, from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory and the principle investigator of the observations.

The starburst seen in the in the Cat's Paw Nebula is relatively recent and will last for a few million years, the researchers say.

"We're lucky, not only because it's nearby but also because we're catching it while the starburst is happening," said Willis.

Scientists believe NGC 6334 will eventually resemble the Pleiades star clusters, which contains several thousand stars. However, it will not resemble this star cluster from ground-based telescopes because it is more than ten times farther away.