The James Webb Space Telescope captures a young planetary system by its dusty “cat’s tail” (photo)

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has seen Beta Pictoris like never before, capturing a never-before-seen structure that gives the young planetary system a dusty cat’s tail.

Located 63 light years from us, Beta Pictoris is a star approximately twice as large as the Sun and eight times brighter, surrounded by a disk of gas and dust in which there is evidence that planets have formed.

Beta Pictoris was the first planetary system around which astronomers detected a dusty disk of material composed of debris caused by the collision of asteroids and planetesimals during the system’s violent years of formation. After this, using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers detected a second disk of debris and material in the Beta Pictoris system.

Now, using JWST instruments, the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), a team of astronomers has discovered another layer of structure in the system, in the form of a highly tilted dust branch that extends from the southwest. portion of the secondary waste disk.

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“Beta Pictoris is the debris disk that has it all: it has a very bright and nearby star that we can study very well,” study team leader Isabel Rebollido, a scientist at the Center for Astrobiology in Spain, said in a statement.

“While there have been previous ground-based observations in this wavelength range, they did not have the sensitivity and spatial resolution that we have now with JWST, so they did not detect this feature,” Rebollido added.

Beta Pictoris’s cat tail only appeared to the MIRI instrument because it shines brightest in mid-infrared light, which may also explain why it had been overlooked before.

Rebollido and his team also noticed another feature of Beta Pictoris. They saw a temperature difference between the two disks of the planetary system, indicating that they may have different compositions.

“We did not expect JWST to reveal that there are two different types of material around Beta Pictoris, but MIRI clearly showed us that the material in the secondary disk and the tail of the cat is hotter than the main disk,” said the co-author of the research. ,Christopher. Stark, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, in the same statement. “The dust that makes up the disk and tail must be very dark, so we don’t see it easily at visible or near-infrared wavelengths, but in the mid-infrared it shines.”

The team theorizes that the disk with the highest temperature is composed of dark, highly porous material similar to that seen on the surface of comets and asteroids in our solar system, which is known as “organic refractory material.”

What made the cosmic cat’s tail twist?

While animal behaviorists think that cats put a staff on their vertically extended tails as a greeting or to indicate friendship or joy, Rebollido and his colleagues aren’t sure what gives shape to this cosmic cat’s tail. This curved feature is not something seen in disks of material from other planetary home systems.

To unravel the puzzle of this cat, the team modeled several scenarios to try to recreate the structure of the cat’s tail and thus explain its origins.

“The cat’s tail feature is very unusual and reproducing the curvature with a dynamic model was difficult,” Stark explained. “Our model requires dust that can be ejected from the system extremely quickly, which again suggests that it is made of organic refractory material.”

This research led the team to determine that the cat’s tail had likely been caused by a dust-producing event that occurred only about 100 years ago from our perspective here on Earth.

“Something happens, like a collision, and a lot of dust is produced,” research co-author Marshall Perrin of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore said in the statement. “At first, the dust follows the same orbital direction as its origin, but then it also begins to spread.”

Perrin added that light from the star pushes smaller, fluffier dust particles away from the star faster, while larger grains are harder to dislodge and therefore don’t move as much, creating a long tendril of dust.

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Annotated version of the photograph showing a large reddish-orange dust cloud in deep space.

Annotated version of the photograph showing a large reddish-orange dust cloud in deep space.

As for the acute angle at which the dust tail protrudes from the debris disk, Rebollido and his colleagues think this is a mere optical illusion caused by the angle at which JWST observed Beta Pictoris. The actual angle at which the dust trail extends from the debris disk is only 5 degrees.

Taking into account the brightness of this newly discovered feature, astronomers were also able to determine that the dust in the tail is equivalent to the mass of an average asteroid in the main belt between Jupiter and Mars, which extends to a length of about 9 .9 billion. miles (16 billion kilometers).


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The dust creation event that gave Beta Pictoris its feline characteristic may also be responsible for another curious feature of the system. Researchers believe the same collision may be the cause of an asymmetry in Beta Pictoris previously observed in 2014 by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

This asymmetry takes the form of a mass of carbon monoxide, which is located next to the cat’s tail. Since radiation from the central star should not take more than a century to break down this mass of carbon monoxide, the fact that the gas concentration still persists could be evidence of the same event.

“Our research suggests that Beta Pic may be even more active and chaotic than we previously thought,” Stark concluded. “JWST continues to surprise us, even when we look at the best-studied objects. We have a completely new window into these planetary systems.”

The team’s research was presented this week during the 243rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in New Orleans.

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