Looking like something out of a Tim Burton movie, the eerie shapes seen here are part of a cloud of gas and dust located 1,470 light-years away in the constellation Cepheus. The transparent anthropomorphic figures with their outstretched “arms” are responsible for the structure’s spooky nickname: the “Ghost Nebula.”
Officially designated vdB 141 (also Sharpless 2-136) the entire nebula is over 2 light-years across — or about half the distance from the Sun to the nearest star system Alpha Centauri.
The stars within and around the nebula give it its light and color. Like fog around a street lamp, a reflection nebula shines because the light from these embedded stars illuminate its dust; unlike emission nebulae the Ghost Nebula does not emit any visible light of its own. (Source)
But rather than remains of the long departed, the gas in this nebula is actually in the process of creating a star. The densest part, in the lower right in this view, contains what appear as bright orange jets erupting from within a dark brown cloud of dust. There inside a cold mass of collapsing dust a newborn star is forming, its energy radiating outward from its poles and carving bright paths through the cloud.
And the ghosts? Their forms were likely sculpted by radiation from other young stars born from the cloud earlier. Eventually in this cluster there will be no more gas and dust, just a grouping of adolescent stars gradually moving outward into the galaxy.
Image credit: T.A. Rector/University of Alaska Anchorage, H. Schweiker/WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF