Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Pulsating Red Giant S-Ori

Sketch of the structure of a pulsating red giant, as derived by the recent interferometric study on S Orionis. The environment around the parent star is made up by three main components: a molecular shell (inner red layer), a dust shell (outer red layer) and a maser shell (red and green speckles). Grains of aluminum oxide constitute most of the dust shell (observed in the infrared band), while the maser radio emission comes from silicon monoxide molecules. The maser spots velocities indicates that the gas is expanding, at a speed of about 10 km/s. (Credit: ESO)

A star such as the Sun will lose between a third and half of its mass during the Mira phase.
[+/-] Click here to expand

S Orionis (S Ori) belongs to the class of Mira-type variable stars. It is a solar-mass star that, as will be the fate of our Sun in 5 billion years, is nearing its gloomy end as a white dwarf. When it will become a red giant, such as S Orionis, its average size will enshroud the orbit of Mercury, Venus, the Earth and Mars. Jupiter's orbit will be just outside the maser shell.

Mira stars are very large and lose huge amounts of matter. Every year, S Ori ejects as much as the equivalent of Earth's mass into the cosmos, and pulsates with a period of 420 days. In the course of its cycle, it changes its brightness by a factor of the order of 500, while its diameter varies by about 20%.

Although such stars are enormous - they are typically larger than the current Sun by a factor of a few hundred, i.e. they encompass the orbit of the Earth around the Sun - they are also distant and to peer into their deep envelopes requires very high resolution. This can only be achieved with interferometric techniques.

The maser emission comes from silicon monoxide (SiO) molecules and can be used to image and track the motion of gas clouds in the stellar envelope roughly 10 times the size of the Sun.

The astronomers observed S Ori with two of the largest interferometric facilities available: the ESO Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) at Paranal, observing in the near- and mid-infrared, and the NRAO-operated Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA), that takes measurements in the radio wave domain.

Because the star's luminosity changes periodically, the astronomers observed it simultaneously with both instruments, at different epochs. The first epoch occurred close to the stellar minimum luminosity and the last just after the maximum on the next cycle.

The star's diameter varies between 7.9 milliarcseconds and 9.7 milliarcseconds. At the distance of S Ori, this corresponds to a change of the radius from about 1.9 to 2.3 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun, or between 400 and 500 solar radii!

As if such sizes were not enough, the inner dust shell is found to be about twice as big. The maser spots, which also form at about twice the radius of the star, show the typical structure of partial to full rings with a clumpy distribution. Their velocities indicate that the gas is expanding radially, moving away at a speed of about 10 km/s.

The multi-wavelength analysis indicates that near the minimum there is more dust production and mass ejection: in these phases indeed the amount of dust is significantly higher than in the others. After this intense matter production and ejection the star continues its pulsation and when it reaches the maximum luminosity, it displays a much more expanded dust shell. This supports a strong connection between the Mira pulsation and the dust production and expulsion.

Astronomers further found that grains of aluminum oxide - also called corundum - constitute most of S Ori's dust shell: the grain size is estimated to be of the order of 10 millionths of a centimetre, that is one thousand times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.

"Because we are all stardust, studying the phases in the life of a star when processed matter is sent back to the interstellar medium to be used for the next generation of stars, planets... and humans, is very important" - Markus Wittkowski.

Original source ESO Press Release
Note: A maser is the microwave equivalent to a laser, which emits visible light. A maser emits powerful microwave radiation instead and its study requires radio telescopes. An astrophysical maser is a naturally occurring source of stimulated emission that may arise in molecular clouds, comets, planetary atmospheres, stellar atmospheres, or from various conditions in interstellar space.

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