It's a bit unusual to name a nebula that formed hundreds of thousands of years ago after a video game character created by a Japanese company just 40 years ago.

Until modern astrophotography allowed us to see this object in great detail, we didn't know what it looked like with any precision. The peculiar shape is due not only to the young star cluster born within it (IC 1590), but also from one very bright star system in that cluster. It consists of multiple stars which include a giant O-type star and four smaller companions.

The combined stellar winds and intense radiation primarily from the quintuple star system have scooped out a depression in the dusty gas cloud that curls to form a black "mustache" on Pac-Man's upper lip. What's with the dark area outlining his mouth? That's dust that is thick enough to block the light from stars behind it.

The Pac-Man Nebula (NGC 218) is only a cosmic stone's throw away at 6,500 light years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Cassiopeia. You can easily see the young star cluster with a hint of the nebula through a small telescope. Binoculars will reveal the star cluster but not any nebulosity. It takes several time exposures through different color filters to bring out the detail you see in this image.

Gary Zientara is owner and astronomer at Mount Sangre Observatory in Angel Fire.

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