The Moth. Credit: Hubble
The object resembling a giant moth floating in space, with a wingspan of about 22 billion miles, is actually a dust disk encircling the nearby, young star HD 61005. Dubbed "The Moth" - its shape is produced by starlight scattering off dust.
Dust disks around roughly 100-million-year-old stars like HD 61005 are typically flat, pancake-shaped structures where planets can form. But images taken with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope of "The Moth" are showing that some disks sport surprising shapes.
"We think HD 61005 is plowing through a local patch of higher-density gas in the interstellar medium, causing material within HD 61005's disk to be swept behind the star." "What effect this might have on the disk, and any planets forming within it, is unknown," said senior research scientist Dean Hines of the Space Science Institute in Corrales, New Mexico, and a member of the Hubble team that discovered the disk.
Hines called this possible collision "unusual, because we don't expect very much interstellar material to be in the solar neighbourhood. That's because the area through which our Sun is moving was evacuated within the past few million years by at least one supernova, the explosion of a massive star. Yet, here's evidence of dense material that's very close, only 100 light-years away."
Astronomers have found evidence that the environment in which a star forms influences its prospects for planet formation. Hubble has actually seen that young planet-forming disks can be affected directly by their environment.
The harsh stellar radiation from the Trapezium stars in the Orion Nebula has altered some disks. It is unclear, however, what effect passage through a cloud similar to the one in which HD 61005 finds itself would have on planet formation. Researchers have speculated that passage through dense regions of the interstellar medium could impact the atmospheres of evolving planets.
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