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Analysis of images of the Butterfly Nebula taken in different years will help unravel the origin of an unusual accumulation of matter.

Published: 2023-01-16

Located in the constellation of Scorpio, the Butterfly Nebula, with huge "wings" of luminous gas, demonstrates what can happen when stars like the Sun run out of fuel and go into a new state, effectively dying in their former capacity. Comparison of images taken more than 10 years apart finally suggested why the nebula acquired a peculiar structure.

The nebula NGC 6302, located 4000 light years from Earth, is indeed a huge "butterfly" with a white dwarf star in the center. The wings themselves are remnants of the star's outer layers of gas that have been ejected intensely into space for thousands of years, ever since the star ran out of fuel and died. Today they span over three light-years, several thousand times the size of the solar system.

For more than a century, astronomers have been trying to understand why the Butterfly Nebula has such a strange structure, while most similar observed objects are characterized by neater, circular “patterns”. The new, longer time-lapse images were showcased at the 241st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle on January 12, giving a fresh look at what's happening far out in space.

Comparing images taken in 2009 and 2020 by the Hubble Space Telescope, the team of scientists identified half a dozen jets of intense "wind" from the nebula's central star. It is believed that it was thanks to them that chaotic, intersecting structures were formed in it for thousands of years.

These jets moved matter toward the edges of the nebula at unusually high speeds, up to 800 kilometers per second. Meanwhile, the matter closer to the central star was moving away from it ten times slower, resulting in the formation of such complex and asymmetric variants of matter. According to scientists, the central star in the Butterfly Nebula is 200 times hotter than the Sun, although it is slightly larger than Earth. Scientists have been comparing images taken by the Hubble telescope for years, but have never seen anything like it.

However, the existing models of the formation of nebulae still do not allow us to reliably explain the formation of precisely “butterfly wings”. It is possible that the central star collided with another star, or at least captured some of the gas from it - as a result of this, complex magnetic fields could form, which led to the appearance of recognizable wings.

Scientists emphasize that so far this is nothing more than a hypothesis, and further research is needed to obtain reliable results.