Human eyes cannot readily see infrared light in the sky, but images taken by Keck and VLT observatories together with the Cassini spacecraft revealed that the star CW Leo or IRC+10216 is the brightest infrared star in the sky – something astronomers have believed for ages, but which graduate student Paul Stewart now demonstrates to be very incorrect.
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In a study published today in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Stewart reconstructed images taken of CW Leo over an 8-year period – 2000 to 2008, to show that the dust emanating from the star had been misinterpreted for years, and that the star now appears buried in its own dust.
High resolution images taken by the Cassini spacecraft revealed that instead of a real star, what astronomers had been thinking was CW Leo was actually a changing inkblot similar to the rings of Saturn.
Professor Peter Tuthill, an astrophysicist and Stewart’s project supervisor contacted other renowned scientists who agreed that earlier astronomers had been wrong about CW Leo, and then published the first ever seen images of a newborn planet.
Professor Tuthill explained that the large clumps and hot dust plumes coming out of the said star got astronomers confused for a long time. But the star is now evolving to show its true color and composition within the interstellar system.
"This is one of those humble moments when nature reminds us all who is boss. For the past 20 years, many astronomers – and I count as one – have tried to put a skeleton underneath the clumpy images we see," Professor Tuthill recalled.
The new research establishes that earlier seen structures within the star’s circumstellar environment is never persistent but keeps changing, and this shows the position and alignment of the star is not consistent with what it should be.
"In trying to find an underlying structure to the clumps and blobs, we have seen little more than our own preconceptions reflected back at us – like a giant celestial Rorschach Ink Blot Test," Professor Tuthill said.
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And that Stewart nails the star by stating that: “CW Leo is a swollen luminous giant poised at the most self-destructive phase of its existence. It is literally tearing itself apart under its own glare, hurling dense clouds of dust and gas out into the galaxy; dying amidst its own glorious final fireworks display."