Beta Pictoris, a young planetary system located just 63 light-years away, continues to intrigue scientists even after decades of in-depth study. It possesses the first dust disk imaged around another star — a disk of debris produced by collisions between asteroids, comets, and planetesimals. Observations from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope revealed a second debris disk in this system, inclined with respect to the outer disk, which was seen first. Now, a team of astronomers using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to image the Beta Pictoris system (Beta Pic) has discovered a new, previously unseen structure.
The team, led by Isabel Rebollido of the Astrobiology Center in Spain, used Webb’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) and MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument) to investigate the composition of Beta Pic’s previously detected main and secondary debris disks. The results exceeded their expectations, revealing a sharply inclined branch of dust, shaped like a cat’s tail, that extends from the southwest portion of the secondary debris disk.
“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 cirumstellar environment with a multi-component disk, exocomets, and two imaged exoplanets,” said Rebollido, lead author of the study. “While there have been previous observations from the ground in this wavelength range, they did not have the sensitivity and the spatial resolution that we now have with Webb, so they didn’t detect this feature.”
A Star’s Portrait Improved with Webb
Even with Webb or JWST, peering at Beta Pic in the right wavelength range — in this case, the mid-infrared — was crucial to detect the cat’s tail, as it only appeared in the MIRI data. Webb’s mid-infrared data also revealed differences in temperature between Beta Pic’s two disks, which likely is due to differences in composition.
“We didn’t expect Webb to reveal that there are two different types…