Old star captured giving birth to celestial butterfly

10 Jun 2015

The European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) caught a glimpse of something rather spectacular — what appears to be the sharpest image ever taken of the birth of a planetary nebula.

The VLT trained its incredibly powerful lens on the red giant star designated L2 Puppis that distinctively looks like a butterfly being born from a cocoon.

According to the ESO, it is located almost 200 light years away and the image was taken with the help of the VLT’s ZIMPOL mode of SPHERE, and the images were taken in visible light using extreme adaptive optics.

This helps corrects images to a much higher degree than standard adaptive optics, allowing faint objects and structures close to bright sources of light to be seen in greater detail, three-times sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The astronomers who discovered the celestial beauty have published their findings online, where they describe finding the dust disc to begin about 900m km from the star where it flares outwards, creating a symmetrical, funnel-like shape surrounding the star.

Image of the Very Large Telescope scanning the night sky

Image of the Very Large Telescope scanning the night sky. Image via G. Hüdepohl

The team also observed a second source of light about 300 million kilometres— twice the distance from Earth to the Sun — from L2 Puppis.

The ESO’s team says this incredibly close companion star is likely to be another red giant of slightly lower mass, but less evolved.

Based off a combination of these findings, the team says, this is exactly the type of system that would be expected to create a bipolar planetary nebula.

These three elements seem to be necessary, but a lot of luck is also required if they are to lead to the emergence of this ‘celestial butterfly’ from this dusty chrysalis.

Speaking of the discovery, lead author of the paper, Pierre Kervella, said this will help solve a long-debated issue is astrophysics: “The origin of bipolar planetary nebulae is one of the great classic problems of modern astrophysics, especially the question of how, exactly, stars return their valuable payload of metals back into space — an important process, because it is this material that will be used to produce later generations of planetary systems.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic