A nebula that looks like a butterfly spreading its red wings mid-flight is the home of hundreds of new stars.
NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope spotted the magnificent giant cloud of gas and dust about 1,400 light-years away from the sun. The U.S. space agency gave it a nickname "Space Butterfly" but it is officially referred to as Westerhout 40 or W40.
A Majestic Stellar Nursery
Nebulae like W40 are giant clouds of dust and gas where new stars are born. That is why they are sometimes called stellar nursery.
"Besides being beautiful, W40 exemplifies how the formation of stars results in the destruction of the very clouds that helped create them," explained NASA. "Inside giant clouds of gas and dust in space, the force of gravity pulls material together into dense clumps. Sometimes these clumps reach a critical density that allows stars to form at their cores."
The materials that create the illusion of wings are giant bubbles of gas that were ejected from a massive cluster of stars in the middle of the Space Butterfly. The biggest and hottest star of the cluster, named W40 IRS 1a, is at the very center of the nebula.
While stellar nurseries like W40 see the birth of stars, for some, the pocket of outer space also serves as a graveyard. When stars in the region explode, they expel material that, when combined with radiation and wind coming from the biggest stars, allow the formation of new stars.
Spitzer's Space Butterfly
The "Space Butterfly" is a photo captured by the Spitzer Space Telescope during its prime mission. It is made up of four individual photos taken with the spacecraft's Infrared Array Camera in different wavelengths of infrared light.
Another bright cluster of stars, called Serpens South, is visible in the photo. It is located on the upper right side of W40.
While both clusters of stars are still fairly young (formed about a few million years ago), Serpens South is younger of the two. NASA said that the stars in the cluster are still embedded within their cloud. However, eventually, the space agency expects that Serpens South will break out and might produce equally stunning formation in the sky.