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'Cosmic butterfly' discovery flips what we know about planet formation

A fascinating discovery was made recently in the vast expanse of our universe: a giant cosmic butterfly, officially known as IRAS 23077+6707, is fluttering through space about 1,000 light-years away from Earth. 

While it was initially spotted in 2016, its true nature remained a mystery for years. However, thanks to new research using advanced telescopes, this cosmic enigma has now been revealed as the largest planet-forming disk ever observed.

The enigmatic cosmic butterfly

When Ciprian T. Berghea from the U.S. Naval Observatory first observed IRAS 23077 through the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS), its unique appearance, resembling a giant butterfly, captured his imagination. However, the true nature of this celestial wonder remained elusive.

“After finding out about this possible planet-forming disk from Pan-STARRS data, we were keen to observe it with the SMA, which allowed us to understand its physical nature,” said Kristina Monsch, an astrophysicist who led the Submillimeter Array (SMA) campaign. 

The SMA, an array of telescopes in Hawaii, can detect millimeter wavelengths, a type of radio wave that is key to understanding the composition of cosmic objects like IRAS 23077.

Planet-forming disk

What the SMA revealed was astounding. This giant cosmic butterfly isn’t just a beautiful sight; it is a massive protoplanetary disk, a swirling cloud of dust and gas where planets are born. 

“What we found was incredible — evidence that this was the largest planet-forming disk ever discovered. It is extremely rich in dust and gas, which we know are the building blocks of planets,” noted Monsch.

Protoplanetary disks are essentially nurseries for planets, where rocky planets like Earth and Mars, as well as giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn, form around young stars. 

These disks are abundant in dust and gas and rotate with a signature that astronomers can use to determine their sizes and the masses of their central stars.

Ingredients of the cosmic butterfly

The observations of IRAS 23077 have revealed a wealth of information about this unique protoplanetary disk. 

“The data from the SMA offer us the smoking-gun evidence that this is a disk, and coupled with the estimate of the system’s distance, that it is rotating around a star likely two to four times more massive than our own sun,” explained Monsch. 

This information provides crucial insights into the formation of planets in these extreme environments.

Additionally, the SMA data allowed researchers to estimate the amount of dust and gas in this planetary nursery, revealing that it contains enough material to form multiple giant planets. 

This finding raises intriguing questions about the potential for planetary systems in the early stages of formation.

Implications for future research

The discovery of IRAS 23077 opens up exciting possibilities for future research in the field of astrophysics. 

“Just how many more of these objects have we missed?” asked Joshua Bennett Lovell, an astrophysicist and SMA Fellow.

“Further study of IRAS 23077 is warranted to investigate the possible routes to form planets in these extreme young environments, and how these might compare to exoplanet populations observed around distant stars more massive than our sun,” Lovell explained.

The research team is optimistic about the potential for further discoveries. “In addition to gaining brand new data on IRAS 23077, we must also continue the hunt for other similar objects if we are to unlock the story of how extrasolar planetary systems develop in their earliest years,” said co-author Jeremy Drake.

Quirky names of the cosmic butterfly

As a final touch of whimsy, Ciprian Berghea initially nicknamed IRAS 23077 “Dracula’s Chivito.” This playful name was inspired by Berghea’s upbringing in the Transylvania region of Romania, close to where Vlad Dracula lived. 

However, in a nod to the famous object “Gomez’s Hamburger,” another edge-on protoplanetary disk, they adopted the suggestion of co-author Ana Mosquera and renamed it after her country’s national dish, the “chivito,” a hamburger-like sandwich from Uruguay.

In summary, the discovery of the largest planet-forming disk in the form of a giant cosmic butterfly is a remarkable achievement in astronomy. 

The ongoing study of IRAS 23077, along with the search for other similar objects, promises to revolutionize our understanding of planet formation and the evolution of planetary systems. This is a giant leap forward in our quest to uncover the secrets of the universe.

The study is published in the journal The Astrophysical Journal Letters.


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