The view in the infrared is strikingly different from that in visible light. With dust obscuring the view far less, astronomers can learn much more about how stars in the nebula form and develop in their first few million years of life.
NGC 6334 is one of the most active nurseries of massive stars in our galaxy and lies toward the heart of the Milky Way, 5500 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Scorpius (the Scorpion).
VISTA is the world's largest survey telescope. It works at infrared wavelengths, seeing right through much of the dust that is such a beautiful but distracting aspect of the nebula, and revealing objects hidden from the sight of visible light telescopes. Visible light tends to be scattered and absorbed by interstellar dust, but the dust is nearly transparent to infrared light.
This is an infrared view of the Cat's Paw Nebula (NGC 6334) taken by VISTA. The images were taken through Y, J and Ks filters (shown as blue, green and red respectively) and the exposure time was five minutes per filter. The field of view is about one degree across.
(Photo Credit: ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit)
VISTA has a main mirror that is 4.1 meters across and it is equipped with the largest infrared camera on any telescope. It shares the spectacular viewing conditions with ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT). With this powerful instrument at their command, astronomers were keen to see the birth pains of the big young stars in the Cat's Paw Nebula, some nearly ten times the mass of the Sun.
The very wide field of view offered by the VISTA telescope allows the whole star-forming region to be imaged in one shot with much greater clarity than ever before.
The VISTA image is filled with countless stars of our Milky Way galaxy overlaid with spectacular tendrils of dark dust that are seen here fully for the first time. The dust is sufficiently thick in places to block even the near-infrared radiation to which VISTA's camera is sensitive.
In many of the dusty areas, such as those close to the center of the picture, features that appear orange are apparent — evidence of otherwise hidden active young stars and their accompanying jets. Further out though, slightly older stars are laid bare to VISTA's vision, revealing the processes taking them from their first nuclear fusion along the unsteady path of the first few million years of their lives.