What in the Universe: The Bat Shadow HBC 672 

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What causes the dark wings in this space telescope image? 

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute, Office of Public Outreach, in collaboration with NASA’s Universe of Learning partners: IPAC, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and Sonoma State University. 

Images and Animations
  • Hubble Space Telescope image of the Serpens Nebula: NASA, ESA, and STScI
  • Animation of shadow cast by a circumstellar disk: Dani Player, STScI

Written by Margaret W. Carruthers, 
Designed by Dani Player
Subject Matter Expertise provided by Dr. Klaus Pontoppidan (STScI)
Additional editorial input from Timothy Rhue II and Dr. Brandon Lawton
Music courtesy of Associated Production Music LLC


 Red square against starry sky. Icons, star, galaxy, constellation, asteroid, solar system. Text, What in the universe? 

Image, the sky with stars and luminous clouds. 

Text, Far outside our solar system, more than 1,000 light years from Earth, is a star-forming region known as the Serpens Nebula. 

Part of the nebula is illuminated by the bright young star HBC 672. Dark wing-like shapes project out from either side of the star. 

Text, What are these dark wings? 

A., jets of superheated gas, B., regions of empty space, C., soot billowing from a planet, D., shadows cast by rock and ice. 

D is highlighted. 

This exotic structure is nicknamed the Bat Shadow. 

Shadows of a circumstellar disk, Serpens Nebula, Milky Way galaxy. Like many young stars, HBC 672 is embedded in a cloud of dust and gas. The star illuminates the cloud, which looks bright and foggy because of the way it reflects and scatters the starlight. 

Wide field camera 3, Hubble Space Telescope near infrared light. 

But some of the light from HBC 672 is blocked by a circumstellar disk, a wide ring of rocky and icy material orbiting the star. 

The disk casts a shadow deep into the cloud. 

Given its distance, the disk is too small to see directly. But we can infer that it exists and figure out how it is oriented based on its shadow. 

By studying the shadow in detail, astronomers can even estimate the shape and mass of the disk and the sizes of the particles within it. 

It is likely that this disk contains everything from microscopic dust grains to fully grown planets.