Discuss as:

Pacman Nebula bares its teeth

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA

NGC 281 has been nicknamed the Pacman Nebula because it looks like the "Pac-Man" video-game character in visible light. This infrared view, captured by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Explorer, casts the nebula in a different light. You can see a series of cloud columns pointing toward the central star cluster, making the nebula look as if it's a Pac-Man with sharp teeth.

Just in time for Halloween, a new image from NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer puts some fangs on the Pacman Nebula.

The nebula in the constellation Cassiopeia, formally known as NGC 281, was given its more whimsical nickname years ago because, in visible light, it looks like the dot-chomping character from the "Pac-Man" video game (as you can see below in the picture from the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona).

NSF / AURA / WIYN / Univ. of Alaska / T.A. Rector

This visible-light image of NGC 281 emphasizes the nebula's "Pac-Man" shape: a bright circle with a wedge missing to represent the character's mouth.

NGC 281 is a cloud of gas and dust about 9,200 light-years from Earth, with a cluster of hot stars in the center. The dust obscures much of the light coming from the central cluster, designated IC 1590, particularly in the dark, dusty wedge that represents the Pacman's "mouth."

The newly released infrared view from WISE cuts through the murk and reveals the hot stars at the center of the reddish-greenish nebula. The stars' ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds are blasting away at the surrounding dust from the inside out, giving the nebula a shell-like appearnce. Around the inner lining of the shell, you can see lots of eroded pillars of dust that point toward the center. Contained within the tips of those pillars are infant stars, squeezed into existence by the pressure of the radiation and the winds.

You can think of those jagged pillars as the teeth of the Pacman. And if they also happen to look like a jack o' lantern's teeth, so much the better. After all, this is the weekend for things that go bump (or, in this case, bang) in the night.

More cosmic treats for Halloween weekend:

Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding me to your Google+ circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.