weic2401 — Science Release

Webb discovers dusty cat’s tail in Beta Pictoris System

10 January 2024

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 disc imaged around another star — a disc of debris produced by collisions between asteroids, comets, and planetesimals. Observations from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope revealed a second debris disc in this system [1], inclined with respect to the first. Now, a team of astronomers using the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope to image the Beta Pictoris (Beta Pic) system has discovered a new, previously unseen structure.

The team, led by Isabel Rebollido of the Astrobiology Center in Spain, and now an ESA Research Fellow, 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 discs. 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 disc.

Beta Pictoris is the debris disc that has it all: It has a really bright, close star that we can study very well,” said Rebollido. “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, 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 discs, which likely is due to differences in composition.

“We didn’t expect Webb to reveal that there are two different types of material around Beta Pic, but MIRI clearly showed us that the material of the secondary disc and cat’s tail is hotter than the main disc,” said Christopher Stark, a co-author of the study at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “The dust that forms that disc and tail must be very dark, so we don’t easily see it at visible or near-infrared wavelengths — but in the mid-infrared, it’s glowing.”

To explain the hotter temperature, the team deduced that the dust may be highly porous “organic refractory material,” similar to the matter found on the surfaces of comets and asteroids in our solar system. For example, a preliminary analysis of material sampled from asteroid Bennu by NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex mission found it to be very dark and carbon-rich, much like what MIRI detected at Beta Pic.

The Tail’s Puzzling Beginning Warrants Future Research

However, a major lingering question remains: What could explain the shape of the cat’s tail, a uniquely curved feature unlike what is seen in discs around other stars?

Rebollido and the team modelled various scenarios in an attempt to emulate the cat’s tail and unravel its origins. Though further research and testing is required, the team presents a strong hypothesis that the cat’s tail is the result of a dust production event that occurred a mere one hundred years ago.

“Something happens — like a collision — and a lot of dust is produced,” shared Marshall Perrin, a co-author of the study at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. “At first, the dust goes in the same orbital direction as its source, but then it also starts to spread out. The light from the star pushes the smallest, fluffiest dust particles away from the star faster, while the bigger grains do not move as much, creating a long tendril of dust.”

“The cat’s tail feature is highly unusual, and reproducing the curvature with a dynamical model was difficult,” explained Stark. “Our model requires dust that can be pushed out of the system extremely rapidly, which again suggests it’s made of organic refractory material.”

The team’s preferred model explains the sharp angle of the tail away from the disc as a simple optical illusion. Our perspective combined with the curved shape of the tail creates the observed angle of the tail, while in fact, the arc of material is only departing from the disc at a five-degree incline. Taking into consideration the tail’s brightness, the team estimates the amount of dust within the cat’s tail to be equivalent to a large main belt asteroid spread out across 16 billion kilometres.

A recent dust production event within Beta Pic’s debris discs could also explain an asymmetry previously spotted by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in 2014: a clump of carbon monoxide (CO) located near the cat’s tail. Since the star’s radiation should break down CO within roughly one hundred years, this still-present concentration of gas could be lingering evidence of the same event.

“Our research suggests that Beta Pic may be even more active and chaotic than we had previously thought,” said Stark. “Webb continues to surprise us, even when looking at the most well-studied objects. We have a completely new window into these planetary systems.”

These results were presented in a press conference at the 243rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The observations were taken as part of Guaranteed Time Observation program 1411.


[1] Learn more about these 2006 Hubble observations that revealed a second debris disc in the Beta Pic system here.

More information

Webb is the largest, most powerful telescope ever launched into space. Under an international collaboration agreement, ESA provided the telescope’s launch service, using the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. Working with partners, ESA was responsible for the development and qualification of Ariane 5 adaptations for the Webb mission and for the procurement of the launch service by Arianespace. ESA also provided the workhorse spectrograph NIRSpec and 50% of the mid-infrared instrument MIRI, which was designed and built by a consortium of nationally funded European Institutes (The MIRI European Consortium) in partnership with JPL and the University of Arizona.

Webb is an international partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, C. Stark and K. Lawson (NASA GSFC), J. Kammerer (ESO), and M. Perrin (STScI).



Bethany Downer
ESA/Hubble Chief Science Communications Officer
Email: [email protected]

Ninja Menning
ESA Newsroom and Media Relations Office
Email: [email protected]

About the Release

Release No.:weic2401


Star system Beta Pictoris (MIRI image)
Star system Beta Pictoris (MIRI image)
Star system Beta Pictoris (MIRI image, annotated)
Star system Beta Pictoris (MIRI image, annotated)
Star system Beta Pictoris (MIRI image, compass image)
Star system Beta Pictoris (MIRI image, compass image)

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