Axisymmetry in protoplanetary nebulae: using imaging polarimetry to investigate envelope structure
We use ground-based imaging polarimetry to detect and image the dusty circumstellar envelopes of a sample of proto-planetary nebulae (PPNe) at near-infrared wavelengths. This technique allows the scattered light from the faint envelope to be separated from the glare of the bright central star and is particularly well suited to this class of object. We detect extended (up to 9 arcsec diameter) circumstellar envelopes around 15 out of 16 sources with a range of morphologies including bipolars and shells. The distribution of scattered light in combination with its polarization (up to 40 per cent) provides unambiguous evidence for axisymmetry in 14 objects showing this to be a common trait of PPNe. We suggest that the range of observed envelope morphologies results from the development of an axisymmetric dust distribution during the superwind phase at the end of the AGB. We identify shells seen in polarized light with scattering from these superwind dust distributions which allows us to provide constraints on the duration of the superwind phase. In one object (IRAS 19475+3119) the circumstellar envelope has a two-armed spiral structure which we suggest results from the interaction of the mass losing star with a binary companion.