Our Sun is one of the big reasons we’re all here today. It provides much of the energy needed for life to exist, and without it I wouldn’t be writing this and you wouldn’t be here to read it. We think of stars as ancient things that have been there forever but new ones are being created all the time, and NASA just captured a gorgeous image of a place where new stars are born.
NASA affectionately calls it a “Space Butterfly,” but in reality it’s a pair of massive gas clouds. Its official name is Westerhout 40 (W40), and it’s a nebula. W40 and nebulas like it are massive pockets of space where material like gas and stardust begins to coalesce into new objects like stars.
“Besides being beautiful, W40 exemplifies how the formation of stars results in the destruction of the very clouds that helped create them,” NASA’s JPL explains. “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.”
Nebulas are like star nurseries, but stars also die here. In fact, the massive “wings” of the space butterfly — made up of gas and other material — were blown into space by stellar explosions. In this case, a star cluster in the center of the two large bubbles is responsible for the colorful clouds of W40, and that material that was once star matter is well on its way to becoming new stars again.
The image was captured using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. It’s a remarkably detailed image considering the nebula is some 1,400 light years away from Earth. The single image seen here is a composite of four individual photos snapped using the telescope’s infrared camera.