Nebula NGC 281 dazzles in the infrared

Imagery from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) highlights erosion by a young star cluster in nebula NGC 281.

This is an infrared image of the star-forming cloud nebula NGC 281, captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). NGC 281 is a giant cloud of dust and gas located about 9,200 light-years away within our own Milky Way galaxy, in the constellation Cassiopeia. It spans about 130 light-years in space.

This image was released on October 26, 2011.

NGC 281 in infrared light. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Blue and green-blue represent infrared light (at wavelengths of 3.4 and 4.6 microns), which is primarily from stars, the hottest objects pictured. Green and red light (at 12 and 22 microns), comes primarily from warm dust — with the green dust being warmer than the red dust.

Inside the cloud, a new cluster of stars is forming. This young cluster, called IC 1590, appears as a group of stars near the center of the red and green cloud in the upper portion of the image. Within the cluster there are several massive stars, many times the mass of the sun. These stars are also very hot and produce large amounts of ultraviolet radiation and blow strong winds.

The radiation and winds erode the larger cloud from the inside out, giving it a shell-like appearance. The winds and radiation heat the dust in the cloud, which then glows in infrared light. The wavelengths at which the dust glows depend on temperature.

NGC 281 in visible light and x-ray (blue) has a different appearance. A colloquial name for the nebula is Pac-Man Nebula, in reference to a popular video game of the early 1980s. Via Wikimedia

The process of erosion of the nebula by the young star cluster is thought to trigger the additional formation of stars. Around the edges of NGC 281 are many long columns pointing toward the central star cluster. These are parts of the cloud that are a bit more dense and hence erode more slowly than the rest of the cloud.

At the tips of these columns, the material may be compressed enough to set off the formation of new stars.

Sprinkled around the images are several star-like objects that appear very red. These are likely baby stars in the early stages of formation. They are wrapped in cocoons of dust, which glow strongly in the longer wavelengths, giving them their red color.

Bottom line: NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) captured an image of NGC 281 — sometimes called the Pac-Man Nebula — as it appears in infrared light. NASA released the image on October 26, 2011.


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