Hubble Takes an Amazing and Baffling Photo of a Distant Ring of Light

Tuesday, 06 March 2018 - 6:25PM
Space
Astronomy
Tuesday, 06 March 2018 - 6:25PM
Hubble Takes an Amazing and Baffling Photo of a Distant Ring of Light
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NASA, ESA, and G. Schneider (University of Arizona)
Bright lights, debris clouds, and other weird phenomena are littered throughout the universe, but there's nothing else quite like the bizarre formation of dust that surrounds the distant star HR 4796A.

This star exists a solid 237 light years from Earth, and while it's been observed before, we haven't gotten any really clear pictures of its unusual appearance until now. Back when it was first discovered, scientists noted a ring of bright light circling the star like a halo; a phenomenon that, by itself, isn't all too surprising. The universe has a lot of spare dust, and it's believed that this tight ring of dust is probably the indication of planets forming around HR 4796A.

Now, though, the Hubble space telescope has taken an even clearer photo of HR 4796A, and it turns out that things are even more intriguing than they first appeared. Gazing at the picture, it's easy to see that something incredible is going on - the beauty of this image makes it look like everyone's dream of what outer space must look like.




Around the star, there's a second, far wider ring of dust, which extends over 150 billion miles, which is the distance from our sun to Pluto and back (on a good day, depending on the dwarf moon's place in its orbit).

This dust ring's origins aren't particularly clear - it was possibly created as part of HR4796A's original birth, but its size does seem surprising considering that the star is still relatively young. What's more, the wider dust ring is a bizarre shape; it's truncated in places where it hasn't expanded evenly outward from the planet.



An official press release from the Hubble telescope's website wonderfully describes this by saying that "the puffy outer dust structure is like a donut-shaped inner tube that got hit by a truck". It's slightly smashed up, for reasons we don't entirely understand. According to Glenn Schneider of the University of Arizona:

Opening quote
"We cannot treat exoplanetary debris systems as simply being in isolation. Environmental effects, such as interactions with the interstellar medium and forces due to stellar companions, may have long-term implications for the evolution of such systems. The gross asymmetries of the outer dust field are telling us there are a lot of forces in play (beyond just host-star radiation pressure) that are moving the material around.

We've seen effects like this in a few other systems, but here's a case where we see a bunch of things going on at once."
Closing quote


It seems that whatever caused HR4796A's large dust cloud, and whatever caused it to end up forming so strangely, there's some weird stuff going on here that we don't entirely understand.

Considering the vast emptiness of space, it's unexpected that there might be something which collided with or otherwise influenced the formation of the dust ring which has since disappeared into the night. But at the same time, with a galaxy this littered with random junk, two big masses are bound to bump into each other every now and then.

With any luck, we'll be able to get some better photos of HR4796A at some point in the future, such as when the James Webb telescope is online following its scheduled launch next year. With a clearer look at this distant star system, we might be able to figure out more of what caused HR4796A's dust clouds to take such an unusual shape.
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