For the first time, astronomers spot the cosmic metamorphosis of a butterfly nebula through the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal in Chile. The "birth" of the nebula is interestingly accompanied by a dying red giant star.

These recent images are said to be among the clearest and most vivid of all photos captured by the VLT, exceeding those from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope by three fold.

The new images from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) taken using the ZIMPOL mode of the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research (SPHERE) instrument, focused on the aging red star called the L2 Puppis. This star, with a distance of about 200 light-years from Earth, is seen encircled in a dust formation that stretches outward by about 900 million kilometers.

The budding "butterfly wings" are made up of dust cones and extend up and down, with an angle of about 90 degrees toward the disk, flying through its center in curving plumes. The younger version of the red star orbits swiftly along its aged counterpart, once every few years.

The fusion of the vast bed of dust, the dying red star and its accompanying little young star strongly imply that a bipolar planetary nebula has been created, as this is exactly how the system should go in this situation. The occurrence of the celestial butterfly is made possible by these three components; however, a stroke of luck may also be helpful in the butterfly's evolution from the dust.

"The origin of bipolar planetary nebulae is one of the great classic problems of modern astrophysics, especially the question of how, exactly, stars return their valuable payload of metals back into space—an important process, because it is this material that will be used to produce later generations of planetary systems," said Pierre Kervella, lead author from La Unidad Mixta Internacional Franco-Chilena de Astronomía in France.

Kervella admits that further investigation is required in this field, but the recently-captured images will be helpful to scientists as they continue on in their research about the bipolar planetary nebula.

"With the companion star orbiting L2 Puppis only every few years, we expect to see how the companion star shapes the red giant's disk. It will be possible to follow the evolution of the dust features around the star in real time—an extremely rare and exciting prospect," Kervella said.

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