A Cosmic Dark Knight Rises in Spooky 'Bat Wing' Hubble Photo

Stand aside, Batman — your bat signal has nothing on a huge "bat shadow" the Hubble Space Telescope spotted in a distant gas cloud.

Just in time for Halloween, the new image shows a "striking shadow" in Serpens Nebula, which is about 1,300 light-years from Earth, European Space Agency officials said in a statement. Astronomers nicknamed this the bat shadow, because, well, it looks a lot like a bat with outstretched wings.

You can see the two black streaks stretching from either side of a star called HBC 672, which is lighting up the surrounding gas cloud (or nebula). While the bat's wings are a spooky sight, there's a natural explanation for them: They occur because HBC 672 is surrounded by a disk of material that could one day turn into planets.

The striking "bat shadow" cast by the young star HBC 672 can be seen in this Hubble telescope view of part of the Serpens Nebula. (Image credit: NASA/ESA/StSCi)

"By clinging tightly to the star, the disk creates an imposing shadow, much larger than the disk — approximately 200 times the diameter of our own solar system," ESA officials wrote. "The disk's shadow is similar to that produced by a cylindrical lamp shade. Light escapes from the top and bottom of the shade, but along its circumference, dark cones of shadow form."

Most of the shadow is jet-black, but astronomers do see some color changes along the edges. This helps researchers learn more about the size and composition of the dust grains in the disk, ESA officials added. The shadow feature is rather striking, but it's just the angle that makes it look unusual; these shadows are actually very common around young stars.

A view of the Serpens Nebula from the HAWK-I instrument on the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile. The filters used here cover wavelengths similar to the ones Hubble can see. (Image credit: ESO)

"The whole Serpens Nebula, of which this image shows only a tiny part, could host more of these shadow projections. The nebula envelops hundreds of young stars, many of which could also be in the process of forming planets in a protoplanetary disk," ESA added.

If you use your bat vision, you can even see another bat-like shadow in the same image, in the upper left-hand corner. Maybe the shadows are not spooky enough to scare Gotham, but they're neat signals demonstrating how our solar system used to look. Scientists commonly study protoplanetary disks to learn more about our solar system's history.

A ground-based wide-field view of the Serpens Nebula and surroundings from the Digitized Sky Survey. (Image credit: NASA/ESA/Digitized Sky Survey 2 (Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin))

Hubble has hosted other spooky sights in the past. Just check out this gallery of nebulas for a few examples.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace