Astronomers have observed the stunning fallout of a fight between two stars, which culminated in colorful stellar guts being spilled across space.
The new image, released by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) on Wednesday, captures the aftermath of a confrontation inside a binary star system called HD101584, located thousands of light years from Earth.
HD101584 contains a small dwarf star trapped in orbit around a larger star that has passed through its red giant phase, and is now essentially dead. Red giants are formed when middle-sized stars, such as the Sun, burn through their final reserves of hydrogen, which causes the star to expand and shed their outer gassy layers.
When this process occurred inside HD101584, the dwarf star was swallowed by its swelling companion. But the smaller star did not just submit to this cannibalization, and instead appears to have spiraled around the core of its dying partner, which triggered a burst of activity from the red giant.
As a result, gas from the giant was ejected in complex and beautiful patterns that have been imaged in spectacular detail by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile.
The after-fight glow is not only visually beautiful, it could also help scientists understand the death throes of Sun-like stars, according to a recent study about the image in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.
“Currently, we can describe the death processes common to many Sun-like stars, but we cannot explain why or exactly how they happen,” said study co-author Sofia Ramstedt, an astronomer at Uppsala University, in a statement. “With detailed images of the environment of HD101584 we can make the connection between the giant star it was before, and the stellar remnant it will soon become.”