NASA’s Webb Space Telescope Chases A Dusty Cat’s Tail Giving Scientists Pause

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NASA’s Webb telescope unveiled a curious new feature of the Beta Pictoris (Beta Pic), a young planetary system located only 63 light-years away. Using Webb’s MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument), researchers discovered what looks like a cat’s tail that extends from the southwest portion of Beta Pic’s secondary debris disk.

The James Webb Space Telescope continues to astound with its ability to reveal once hidden celestial objects in space. Webb’s ability to capture space in mid-infrared was crucial in being able to reveal Beta Pic’s cat’s tail, while also observing differences in temperature between Beta Pic’s two disks. The outer disk was discovered first, while the second debris disk was detected by the Hubble Space Telescope.

“Beta Pictoris is the debris disk that has it all: It has a really bright, close star that we can study very well, and a complex circumstellar environment with a multi-component disk, exocomets, and two imaged exoplanets,” explained Isabel Rebollido of the Astrobiology Center in Spain, and lead author of the study. “While there have been previous observations from the ground in this wavelength range, they did have the sensitivity and the spatial resolution that we now have with Webb, so they didn’t detect this feature.”

NASA believes the hotter temperature that Webb detected may be a result of the dust being highly porous “organic refractory material,” similar to matter found on the surface of comets and asteroids in the solar system. However, the team still had to answer the shape of the cat’s tail. Using modeled scenarios, the researchers have developed what they believe to be a “strong hypothesis” as to its origins and shape, that could have occurred as little as one hundred years ago.

“Something happens - like a collision - and a lot of dust is produced,” remarked Marshall Perrin, a co-author of the study. “At first, the dust goes in the same orbital direction as its source, but then it also starts to spread out. The light from the star pushes the smallest, fluffiest dust particles away from the star faster, while the bigger grains do not move as much, creating a long tendril of dust.”

As of right now, the team’s preferred model suggests the sharp angle of the tail away from the disk is a simple optical illusion. What the researchers believe it could be is that the arc of material is only departing from the disk at a five-degree incline. The team estimates the amount of dust within the tail to equate to a large main belt asteroid spread out across 10 billion miles.

“Our research suggests that Beta Pic may be even more active and chaotic than we had previously thought,” explained Christopher Stark, a co-author of the study. “JWST continues to surprise us, even when looking at the most well-studied objects. We have a completely new window into these planetary systems.”

The results of the study of Beta Pictoris were presented in a press conference at the 243rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in New Orleans, Lousiana. With Webb continuing to unlock more of the universe, it makes one wonder what else may be out there that cannot be seen yet with current technology.