NASA just captured a gorgeous image of a nebula where new stars are born. Officially known as Westerhout 40 (W40), this place looks like a space butterfly.

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope caught the above image in infrared. It reveals a nursery for hundreds of baby stars.

The hot, interstellar gas blown from the thick cluster of stars at the center makes up the butterfly’s wings. Nebulae like W40 are massive places in 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.”

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W40 is about 1,400 light-years from the Sun. That’s about the same distance as the Orion nebula, although the two are almost 180 degrees apart in the sky.

However, in this image, you can see another cluster of stars to the upper right of W40 named Serpens South. Even though both clusters are relatively young Serpens South is the younger of the two. Its stars are still embedded within their cloud but will someday break out to produce bubbles like those of W40.

The resulting mosaic image was released as part of the MYStIX (Massive Young stellar clusters Study in Infrared and X-rays) survey of young stellar objects run by NASA.

The Spitzer Space Telescope is an infrared telescope studying the early universe, young galaxies and forming stars. NASA launched it into orbit around the sun, trailing behind Earth, on August 25, 2003. Scientists primarily use it to detect dust spreads around stars.

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Thumbnail image: This is W40. A nebula or a giant cloud of gas and dust resembling a butterfly. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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