NASA, ESA, J. Wisniewski (University of Oklahoma), C. Grady (Eureka Scientific), and G. Schneider (Steward Observatory)
These two NASA Hubble Space Telescope images, taken six years apart, show fast-moving blobs of material sweeping outwardly through a debris disk around the young, nearby red dwarf star AU Microscopii (AU Mic). Red dwarfs are the most abundant and longest-lived stars in our Milky Way galaxy. AU Mic is approximately 23 million years old.
The top image was taken in 2011; the bottom in 2017. Hubble's Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) took the images in visible light. This comparison of the two images shows the six-year movement of one of the known blobs (marked by an arrow). Researchers estimate that the blob, which is zipping along at nearly 15,000 miles an hour, traveled more that 820 million miles between 2011 and 2017. That is about the distance from Earth to Saturn. Astronomers do not know how the blobs are launched through the system.
Eventually, the blob highlighted in the image will sweep through the disk, escape the star's gravitational grip, and race out into space. Astronomers expect the string of blobs to clear out the disk within 1.5 million years. Their estimated ejection speeds are between 9,000 miles per hour and 27,000 miles per hour, fast enough to escape the star's gravitational clutches. They currently range in distance from roughly 930 million miles to more than 5.5 billion miles from the star.
The disk, seen edge-on, is illuminated by scattered light from the star. The glare of the star, located at the center of the disk, has been blocked out by the STIS coronagraph so that astronomers can see more structure in the disk. The bright dot above the left side of the disk in the 2017 image is a background star.
The system resides 32 light-years away in the southern constellation Microscopium.