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NGC 281: Living the High Life
NGC 281
NGC 281

  • NGC 281 is a relatively nearby cloud of gas and dust that lies high above the plane of the Milky Way galaxy.

  • Its location makes NGC 281 a good target for astronomers who want to study "high-mass" stars.

  • High-mass stars are those that contain 8 times the Sun's mass or more.

  • These stars play an important role in galaxies, but are generally poorly understood because they are hard to observe.

High-mass stars are important because they are responsible for much of the energy pumped into our galaxy over its lifetime. Unfortunately, these stars are poorly understood because they are often found relatively far away and can be obscured by gas and dust. The star cluster NGC 281 is an exception to this rule. It is located about 9,200 light years from Earth and, remarkably, almost 1,000 light years above the plane of the Galaxy, giving astronomers a nearly unfettered view of the star formation within it.

Milky Way
NGC 281 in relation to the Milky Way plane.
Milky Way image by Nick Risinger,

This composite image of NGC 281 contains X-ray data from Chandra (purple) with infrared observations from Spitzer (red, green, blue). The high-mass stars in NGC 281 drive many aspects of their galactic environment through powerful winds flowing from their surfaces and intense radiation that heats surrounding gas, "boiling it away" into interstellar space. This process results in the formation of large columns of gas and dust, as seen on the left side of the image. These structures likely contain newly forming stars. The eventual deaths of massive stars as supernovas will also seed the galaxy with material and energy.

NGC 281 is known informally as the "Pacman Nebula" because of its appearance in optical images. In optical images the "mouth" of the Pacman character appears dark because of obscuration by dust and gas, but in the infrared Spitzer image the dust in this region glows brightly.

Fast Facts for NGC 281:
Credit  X-ray: NASA/CXC/CfA/S.Wolk; IR: NASA/JPL/CfA/S.Wolk
Release Date  September 28, 2011
Scale  Image is about 18 arcmin across (about 48 light years)
Category  Normal Stars & Star Clusters
Coordinates (J2000)  RA 00h 52m 59.35s | Dec +56° 37' 18.8"
Constellation  Cassiopeia
Observation Date  3 pointings from 11/10/05-11/12/05
Observation Time  27 hours 30 min
Obs. ID  5424, 7205-7206
Instrument  ACIS
Color Code  X-ray (Purple); Infrared (Red, Green, Blue)
Distance Estimate  About 9,200 light years
distance arrow
Visitor Comments (10)

Is there anyway to get a higher resolution version of this image? The options are just not high enough.

Posted by Joe on Wednesday, 10.25.17 @ 12:17pm

I would like to know why all the planets appear to be spherical, or round. and I would like to ask if there is electrical components(lightening) on other planets.

Posted by jnomed on Sunday, 11.20.11 @ 14:47pm

Then, and in view of the image, the dark Matter could be Hydrogen (mostly volume) and various gases and dust as local gravitational centers of particles, which are turned into Stars?
Best wishes from Spain

Posted by Alfonso J. on Wednesday, 10.19.11 @ 12:29pm

We're not taking an image from outside but from within our own galaxy. The image looks in to the galaxy's center from the fringe where our SS is thought to be located.

Posted by Commie on Wednesday, 10.12.11 @ 22:43pm

May I ask a question? how did the image of entire Milky Way comes from, is it from satellite?
Thanks from China

Posted by Jianglian Yang on Saturday, 10.8.11 @ 00:07am

Hi Andrew,
The image is taken of the rest of the galaxy looking at it from our prospective. You can see almost the entire galaxy looking at it from our "fringe" outpost. Using various wavelengths, such as radio-waves which can see through the obscuring dust, we can get a pretty good picture of the entire galaxy. Hope that helps.

Posted by John Cave on Sunday, 10.2.11 @ 12:35pm

The image of the Milky Way Galaxy is a composite image of the entire night sky derived from images taken from around the globe and stitched together. Visit to learn more about this image.

Posted by Michael Adams on Saturday, 10.1.11 @ 12:04pm

Very interesting, need more information, thanks.

Posted by rick moll on Saturday, 10.1.11 @ 09:23am

The image shown is a panorama, showing a very large field of view of our galaxy from our viewpoint inside the galaxy. It is because we are so far from the center of our galaxy that we can get a view like this that appears to encompass the entire galaxy. However, if we were outside our galaxy the view would look slightly different.

Posted by Nick on Friday, 09.30.11 @ 16:38pm

If our solar system is WITHIN the Milky Way (albeit on the fringes) - so many thousands of light years in diameter - how is it possible to capture an image of our entire galaxy from a distance??

Posted by Andrew on Thursday, 09.29.11 @ 18:37pm

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