Image Tour: Cat’s Paw Nebula

Video Player

Video Versions

Learn how the areas within this region lead to active star formation and populations.

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with NASA’s Universe of Learning partners: Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Sonoma State University.
  • Spitzer Space Telescope image of Cat’s Paw Nebula: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Written by Claire Blome
Designed by Leah Hustak and Dani Player
Subject matter expertise from Dr. Matthew S. Povich, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Editorial and design input from Dr. Rutuparna Das (Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian), Dr. Quyen Hart, Dr. Varoujan Gorjian (JPL), Yesenia Perez
Music courtesy of Yesh Music (ASCAP)


A white-outlined box is within a gold-outlined box on top of a colorful green, pink, and beige cloudy space background. Title, Cat's Paw Nebula, Image Tour. Fast Facts, Constellation, Scorpius, Distance from Earth, 5,500 light-years, Size, 80 to 90 light-years across, Wavelength of Light, infrared. 

The Cat's Paw Nebula is one of the most active star-forming regions in our Milky Way galaxy. Tour Stops, Paw Shape. The nebula's large, round features create the impression of a feline footprint. An illustration of a white cat's paw is superimposed over the nebula. The round pink areas represent the cat toes. 

A zoomed-in view focuses on three round pink areas. Dotted-line circles highlight each area. Text, Tour Stops, Bubbles. The "paw pads" are bubbles of gas, dust, and other complex molecules where massive stars have formed. After gas and dust inside the nebula collapse to form stars, the stars may heat up the pressurized gas surrounding them, causing it to expand and create bubbles. 

The lightest area of the nebula is zoomed in to show a beige swirling area with hundreds of small stars. Text, Tour Stops, Star-forming Region. The whitest region is an area of intense star formation for massive stars, which lead short, brilliant lives. They are estimated to be less than 1 million years old but will last only a few million more. For comparison, our sun is more than 4 billion years old. 

The image zooms back out to show the entire nebula. Text, Tour Stops, Filament. Stars require a lot of gas and dust to form. A branching dotted line outlines darker areas that run through the center and the full length of the nebula. Text, The black filaments that run through the nebula are extremely dense, cold regions of gas and dust. They consist of some of the primary ingredients that may eventually collapse to form stars. 

The Cat's Paw Nebula helps researchers learn about how stars form, and the ingredients and conditions required to create them. 

This view is fleeting. About 2 million years from now, the nebula will have blown away or evaporated, leaving only a few massive star clusters behind.