Cosmic Transformation From a Dying Red Giant Star into a New Vibrant Butterfly Nebula

The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) caught an image of a butterfly-shaped nebula around the dust of an aging red giant star, L2 Puppis.

L2 Puppis, also known as HD 56096) is located in the Puppis constellation, about 200 light-years away from the Earth. Its mass range is from 1 to 3 solar masses, with a surface temperature of 5,660 degrees Fahrenheit, equivalent to 3,127 degrees Celsius and shines 1.500 to 2.400 times brighter than our Sun.

A highly detailed view of the red giant star was captured by the imager ZIMPOL, one of the newly installed instrument (SPHERE) on the VLT of L2 Puppis.  A three-dimensional model of the nebula was created out of the information gathered from ZIMPOL. The latest images are three times sharper than those produced by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. From the ZIMPOL images, astronomers were able to trace the origin of the dust disc: it came from L2 Puppis at about a 900 million kilometer span.  The team also observed a companion star, reflected as a second light source about 300 million kilometers away from L2 Puppis.  Scientists surmise this to be a younger red giant star that orbits L2 Puppis every few years.

The combination of a dying red giant star surrounded by space dust and a companion orbiting star is an astronomical phenomenon known as a bipolar planetary nebula. 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,” explains the  study’s  lead author, Pierre Kervella.

Scientists also found two cones of material protruding towards the disc. Inside the cones are “two long, slowly curving plumes of materials.”   Astronomers explain that one of these was most likely the result of the interaction between the material from L2 Puppis and the wind and radiation pressure from the companion star, while the other was formed from the collision of stellar winds from the two stars.  It may also possibly have ascended from an accretion disk of the companion star.

Kervella explains how the team feels about their discovery:  “[Monitoring the real time change in the dust disc caused by the orbiting companion star around L2 Puppis could be ‘an extremely rare and exciting prospect.’ ”





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