JUN 29, 2020 4:08 PM PDT

Hubble Captures the 'Flapping' of Cosmic 'Wings'

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

The Hubble Space Telescope continues to send us incredible images of space. It has recently captured an image involving a young star called HBC 672. Discs of planet-forming material spin out of stars like HBC 672. In the image, its planet-forming disc is casting a shadow on a distant cloud. Because of its shape, it was named the "Bat Shadow," and researchers have now reported that the wings even seem to flap.

"The shadow moves. It's flapping like the wings of a bird!" explained researcher Klaus Pontoppidan, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland, who reported on the finding with colleagues. A planet may be exerting a pull on the disc that's warping it.

Pontoppidan explained how this shadow is created: "You have a star that is surrounded by a disk, and the disc is not like Saturn's rings; it's not flat. It's puffed up. And so that means that if the light from the star goes straight up, it can continue straight up; it's not blocked by anything. But if it tries to go along the plane of the disc, it doesn't get out, and it casts a shadow."

The disk is a swirling mass of dust, gas, and rock, and it could have a shape like a saddle, which would explain why the shadow seems to flap. A planet that sits in the disc, orbiting at an incline to the disc, could be causing a double warp and the shadow's movement.

"If there were just a simple bump in the disk, we'd expect both sides of the shadow to tilt in opposite directions, like airplane wings during a turn," said team member Colette Salyk of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Astronomers using Hubble previously captured a remarkable image of a young star's unseen, planet-forming disk casting a huge shadow across a more distant cloud in a star-forming region. The star is called HBC 672, and the shadow feature was nicknamed the "Bat Shadow" because it resembles a pair of wings. The nickname turned out to be unexpectedly appropriate, because now those "wings" appear to be flapping! / Credit: NASA, ESA, and STScI

It could also be a stellar companion orbiting the star outside of the plane of the disc, which would cause the star to wobble relative to its disc. The team suggested, however, that there isn't any evidence for this explanation and it's doubtful.

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, Astrophysical Journal

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
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