Twin Baby Stars Caught Feeding from Their Mother, a Twisted 'Pretzel' of Interstellar Dust

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) captured this unprecedented image of two circumstellar disks, in which baby stars are growing, feeding with material from their surrounding birth disk.
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) captured this unprecedented image of two circumstellar disks, in which baby stars are growing, feeding with material from their surrounding birth disk. (Image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), Alves et al.)

Twin baby stars are nestled inside a "pretzel" of glowing gas and dust in a never-before-seen image captured by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope, located in northern Chile's Atacama Desert.

ALMA spotted the twisted display in the Pipe Nebula. Also known as Barnard 59, this immense dark cloud of interstellar dust lies near the center of the Milky Way in the constellation Ophiuchus (the Serpent Bearer) about 600 to 700 light-years from Earth.

In the center of the image are two glowing orbs that scientists identified as circumstellar disks — dust and gas rings lit up by a pair of young, growing stars, according to a new study. Looping around the twin stars is the larger dust ring that birthed them, twisted into a pretzel shape. Filaments connect the stars to the larger disk; the stars siphon matter through these tendrils, feeding off the larger disk as they grow, the researchers reported in the study. 

Related: 15 Amazing Images of Stars

Each of the dust rings surrounding the two stars is about as large as our solar system's asteroid belt — approximately 140 million miles (225 million kilometers) across — "and the separation between them is 28 times the distance between the sun and the Earth," lead study author Felipe Alves, a postdoctoral researcher with the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Germany, said in a statement. Their mass is comparable to "a few Jupiter masses," the scientists wrote in the study. (Gas giant Jupiter is 11 times bigger than Earth and more than 300 times as massive, according to NASA).

The quantity of dust contained in the twining, twisting parent disk is much greater; its mass is comparable to about 80 Jupiters, the study authors reported.

"This is a really important result," said study co-author Paola Caselli, head of the MPE Centre for Astrochemical Studies. "We have finally imaged the complex structure of young binary stars with their feeding filaments connecting them to the disk in which they were born. This provides important constraints for current models of star formation," Caselli said in the statement.

The image captured the first stage of a binary star system's stellar growth spurt: when the stars hoover up material from the large disk, creating dramatic, looping swirls. Later, the stars will continue to grow by sucking dust and gas from the cosmic matter in their own stellar disks, according to the study.

While this discovery offers a tantalizing glimpse of the dynamics of twin star birth, "we will need to study more young binary systems in detail to better understand how multiple stars form," Alves said.

The findings were published online today (Oct. 4) in the journal Science.

Originally published on Live Science.

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Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.  Her book "Rise of the Zombie Bugs: The Surprising Science of Parasitic Mind Control" will be published in spring 2025 by Johns Hopkins University Press.