Stars come in all sorts of different shapes, but they all pretty much look the same. Giant plasma nuclear furnaces that are generally spherical. Generally. And then NASA went and discovered a star that defies the normal star shape in that it has spiral arms, like a mini galaxy.
The name of the star is SAO 206462. It’s a young star more than four hundred light years from Earth in the constellation Lupus, the wolf. SAO 206462 attracted attention because it has a circumstellar disk—that is, a broad disk of dust and gas surrounding the star. Researchers strongly suspected that new planets might be coalescing inside the disk, which is about twice as wide as the orbit of Pluto.
When they took a closer look at SAO 206462 they found not planets, but arms. Astronomers have seen spiral arms before: they’re commonly found in pinwheel galaxies where hundreds of millions of stars spiral together around a common core. Finding a clear case of spiral arms around an individual star, however, is unprecedented.
“Detailed computer simulations have shown us that the gravitational pull of a planet inside a circumstellar disk can perturb gas and dust, creating spiral arms,” explains NASA’s Carol Grady, who is based at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Now, for the first time, we’re seeing these dynamical features.” The video featured here compares computer simulations of hypothetical systems to the telescope images of SAO 206462.
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