Star caught smoking

Aug 03, 2007
Star caught smoking
Artist rendering of the surroundings of a R Coronae Borealis star, as inferred from the observations obtained with ESO's Very Large Telescope. Such stars show erratic variability that is thought to arise from the presence of large clouds of dust in their envelope. Credit: ESO

Using ESO's Very Large Telescope Interferometer, astronomers from France and Brazil have detected a huge cloud of dust around a star. This observation is further evidence for the theory that such stellar puffs are the cause of the repeated extreme dimming of the star.

R Coronae Borealis stars are supergiants exhibiting erratic variability. Named after the first star that showed such behaviour, they are more than 50 times larger than our Sun. R Coronae Borealis stars can see their apparent brightness unpredictably decline to a thousandth of their nominal value within a few weeks, with the return to normal light levels being much slower. It has been accepted for decades that such fading could be due to obscuration of the stellar surface by newly formed dusty clouds.

This 'Dust Puff Theory' suggests that mass is lost from the R Coronae Borealis (or R CrB for short) star and then moves away until the temperature is low enough for carbon dust to form. If the newly formed dust cloud is located along our line-of-sight, it eclipses the star. As the dust is blown away by the star's strong light, the 'curtain' vanishes and the star reappears.

RY Sagittarii is the brightest member in the southern hemisphere of this family of weird stars. Located about 6,000 light-years away towards the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer), its peculiar nature was discovered in 1895 by famous Dutch astronomer Jacobus Cornelius Kapteyn.

In 2004, near-infrared adaptive optics observations made with NACO on ESO's Very Large Telescope allowed astronomers Patrick de Laverny and Djamel Mékarnia to clearly detect the presence of clouds around RY Sagittarii. This was the first direct confirmation of the standard scenario explaining the light variations of R CrB stars by the presence of heterogeneities in their envelope surrounding the star.

However, the precise place where such dust clouds would form was still unclear. The brightest cloud detected was several hundred stellar radii from the centre, but it had certainly formed much closer. But how much closer?

To probe the vicinity of the star, the astronomers then turned to ESO's Very Large Telescope Interferometer. Combining two different pairs of the 8.2-m Unit Telescopes, the astronomers explored the inner 110 astronomical units around the star. Given the remoteness of RY Sagittarii, this corresponds to looking at details on a one-euro coin that is about 75 km away!

The astronomers found that a huge envelope, about 120 times as big as RY Sagittarii itself, surrounds the supergiant star. But more importantly, the astronomers also found evidence for a dusty cloud lying only about 30 astronomical units away from the star, or 100 times the radius of the star.

"This is the closest dusty cloud ever detected around a R CrB-type variable since our first direct detection in 2004," says Patrick de Laverny, leader of the team. "However, it is still detected too far away from the star to distinguish between the different scenarios proposed within the Dust Puff Theory for the possible locations in which the dusty clouds form."

If the cloud moves at the speed of 300 km/s, as one can conservatively assume, it was probably ejected more than 6 months before its discovery from deeper inside the envelope. The astronomers are now planning to monitor RY Sagittarii more carefully to shed more light on the evolution of the dusty clouds surrounding it.

"Two hundred years after the discovery of the variable nature of R CrB, many aspects of the R CrB phenomenon remain mysterious," concludes de Laverny.

Citation: "A snapshot of the inner dusty regions of a R CrB-type variable", by I.C. Leão et al., Astronomy and Astrophysics 466, L1-L4, 2007

Source: European Southern Observatory

Explore further: POLARBEAR detects curls in the universe's oldest light

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Image: Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko

14 hours ago

It was 45 years ago when astronomer Klim Churyumov and Svetlana Gerasimenko, one of his researchers, unwittingly began a new chapter in the history of space exploration.

Slow-growing galaxies offer window to early universe

Oct 16, 2014

What makes one rose bush blossom with flowers, while another remains barren? Astronomers ask a similar question of galaxies, wondering how some flourish with star formation and others barely bloom.

A crash course in galactic clusters and star formation

Oct 15, 2014

Clusters of galaxies have back-stories worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster: their existences are marked by violence, death and birth, arising after extragalactic pile-ups where groups of galaxies crashed into ...

Image: Hubble catches a dusty spiral in Virgo

Oct 13, 2014

This magnificent new image taken with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the edge-on spiral galaxy NGC 4206, located about 70 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation of Virgo.

The difficulties of cataloging dark nebulae

Oct 06, 2014

E. E. Barnard is an astronomer perhaps best known for measuring the proper motion of a faint red dwarf about six light years away, now known as Barnard's star. But Barnard was also a pioneer of astrophotography, ...

Recommended for you

Big black holes can block new stars

11 hours ago

Massive black holes spewing out radio-frequency-emitting particles at near-light speed can block formation of new stars in aging galaxies, a study has found.

POLARBEAR seeks cosmic answers in microwave polarization

11 hours ago

An international team of physicists has measured a subtle characteristic in the polarization of the cosmic microwave background radiation that will allow them to map the large-scale structure of the universe, ...

New radio telescope ready to probe

14 hours ago

Whirring back and forth on a turning turret, the white, 40-foot dish evokes the aura of movies such as "Golden Eye" or "Contact," but the University of Arizona team of scientists and engineers that commissioned ...

Exomoons Could Be Abundant Sources Of Habitability

Oct 20, 2014

With about 4,000 planet candidates from the Kepler Space Telescope data to analyze so far, astronomers are busy trying to figure out questions about habitability. What size planet could host life? How far ...

Partial solar eclipse over the U.S. on Thursday, Oct. 23

Oct 17, 2014

People in most of the continental United States will be in the shadow of the Moon on Thursday afternoon, Oct. 23, as a partial solar eclipse sweeps across the Earth. For people looking through sun-safe filters, from Los Angeles, ...

User comments : 0