6,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Puppis an enormous star pulses with light and energy, going through the first throes of its death spasms as it depletes its last reserves of hydrogen necessary to maintain a stable, steady radiance. This star, a Cepheid variable named RS Puppis, brightens and dims over a 40-day-long cycle, and newly-released observations with Hubble reveal not only the star but also the echoes of its bright surges as they reflect off the dusty nebula surrounding it.
The image above shows RS Puppis shining brilliantly at the center of its dusty cocoon. (Click the image for a super high-res version.) But wait, there’s more: a video has been made of the variable star’s outbursts as well, and it’s simply mesmerizing. Check it out below:
Assembled from observations made over the course of five weeks in 2010, the video shows RS Puppis pulsing with light, outbursts that are then reflected off the structure of its surrounding nebula. What look like expanding waves of gas are really “light echoes,” radiation striking the densest rings of reflective dust located at farther and farther distances from the star.
According to the NASA image description:
RS Puppis rhythmically brightens and dims over a six-week cycle. It is one of the most luminous in the class of so-called Cepheid variable stars. Its average intrinsic brightness is 15,000 times greater than our sun’s luminosity.
The nebula flickers in brightness as pulses of light from the Cepheid propagate outwards. Hubble took a series of photos of light flashes rippling across the nebula in a phenomenon known as a “light echo.” Even though light travels through space fast enough to span the gap between Earth and the moon in a little over a second, the nebula is so large that reflected light can actually be photographed traversing the nebula. (Source)
RS Puppis is ten times more massive than our Sun, and 200 times larger.
Cepheid variables are more than just fascinating cosmic objects. Their uncanny regularity in brightness allows astronomers to use them as standard candles for measuring distances within our galaxy as well as others — which is trickier than it sounds. Because of its predictable variation along with the echoing light from its surrounding nebula, the distance to RS Puppis (6,500 ly +/- 90) has been able to be calculated pretty accurately, making it an important calibration tool for other such stars. (Read more here.)
Some of the most violent events in our Universe were the topic of discussion this morning at the 222nd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Indianapolis, Indiana as researchers revealed recent observations of light echoes seen as the result of stellar explosions.
A light echo occurs when we see dust and ejected material illuminated by a brilliant nova. A similar phenomenon results in what is termed as a reflection nebula. A star is said to go nova when a white dwarf star siphons off material from a companion star. This accumulated hydrogen builds up under terrific pressure, sparking a brief outburst of nuclear fusion.
A very special and rare case is a class of cataclysmic variables known as recurrent novae. Less than dozen of these types of stars are known of in our galaxy, and the most famous and bizarre case is that of T Pyxidis.
Located in the southern constellation of Pyxis, T Pyxidis generally hovers around +15th magnitude, a faint target even in a large backyard telescope. It has been prone, however, to great outbursts approaching naked eye brightness roughly every 20 years to magnitude +6.4. That’s a change in brightness almost 4,000-fold.
But the mystery has only deepened surrounding this star. Eight outbursts were monitored by astronomers from 1890 to 1966, and then… nothing. For decades, T Pyxidis was silent. Speculation shifted from when T Pyxidis would pop to why this star was suddenly undergoing a lengthy phase of silence.
Could models for recurrent novae be in need of an overhaul?
T Pyxidis finally answered astronomers’ questions in 2011, undergoing its first outburst in 45 years. And this time, they had the Hubble Space Telescope on hand to witness the event.
In fact, Hubble had just been refurbished during the final visit of the space shuttle Atlantis to the orbiting observatory in 2009 on STS-125 with the installation of its Wide Field Camera 3, which was used to monitor the outburst of T Pyxidis.
The Hubble observation of the light echo provided some surprises for astronomers as well.
“We fully expected this to be a spherical shell,” Said Columbia University’s Arlin Crotts, referring to the ejecta in the vicinity of the star. “This observation shows it is a disk, and it is populated with fast-moving ejecta from previous outbursts.”
Indeed, this discovery raises some exciting possibilities, such as providing researchers with the ability to map the anatomy of previous outbursts from the star as the light echo evolves and illuminates the 3-D interior of the disk like a Chinese lantern. The disk is inclined about 30 degrees to our line of sight, and researchers suggest that the companion star may play a role in the molding of its structure from a sphere into a disk. The disk of material surrounding T Pyxidis is huge, about 1 light year across. This results in an apparent ring diameter of 6 arc seconds (about 1/8th the apparent size of Jupiter at opposition) as seen from our Earthly vantage point.
Paradoxically, light echoes can appear to move at superluminal speeds. This illusion is a result of the geometry of the path that the light takes to reach the observer, crossing similar distances but arriving at different times.
And speaking of distance, measurement of the light echoes has given astronomers another surprise. T Pyxidis is located about 15,500 light years distant, at the higher 10% end of the previous 6,500-16,000 light year estimated range. This means that T Pyxidis is an intrinsically bright object, and its outbursts are even more energetic than thought.
Light echoes have been studied surrounding other novae, but this has been the first time that scientists have been able to map them extensively in 3 dimensions.
“We’ve all seen how light from fireworks shells during the grand finale will light up the smoke and soot from the shells earlier in the show,” said team member Stephen Lawrence of Hofstra University. “In an analogous way, we’re using light from T Pyx’s latest outburst and its propagation at the speed of light to dissect its fireworks displays from decades past.”
Researchers also told Universe Today of the role which amateur astronomers have played in monitoring these outbursts. Only so much “scope time” exists, very little of which can be allocated exclusively to the study of light echoes. Amateurs and members of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) are often the first to alert the pros that an outburst is underway. A famous example of this occurred in 2010, when Florida-based backyard observer Barbara Harris was the first to spot an outburst from recurrent novae U Scorpii.
And although T Pyxidis may now be dormant for the next few decades, there are several other recurrent novae worth continued scrutiny:
16H 22’ 31”
-17° 52’ 43”
9H 04’ 42”
-32° 22’ 48”
17H 50’ 13”
-6° 42’ 28”
T Coronae Borealis
15H 59’ 30”
25° 55’ 13”
20H 07’ 37”
+17° 42’ 15”
Clearly, recurrent novae have a tale to tell us of the role they play in the cosmos. Congrats to Lawrence and team on the discovery… keep an eye out from future fireworks from this rare class of star!
In this modern age, we’re used to catching a favorite program at a later time. We use our DVR equipment and, not so long ago, a VCR to record now and watch later. Once upon a great time ago we relied upon a quaint customer called the “re-run” – the same program broadcast at a later date. However, a re-run can’t occur when it comes to astronomy event… Or can it? Oh, you’re gonna’ love this!
Way back in 1837, Eta Carinae had an event they called the “Great Eruption”. It was an outburst so powerful that it was observable in the southern night sky for 21 years. While it could be seen, sketched and recorded for astronomy posterity, one thing didn’t happen – and that was study with modern scientific instruments. But this great double star was about to do an even greater double-take as the light from the eruption continued away from Earth and on towards some dust clouds. Now, 170 years later, the “Great Eruption” has returned to us again in an effect known as a light echo. Because of its longer path, this re-run only took 17 decades to play again!
“When the eruption was seen on Earth 170 years ago, there were no cameras capable of recording the event,” explained the study’s leader, Armin Rest of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. “Everything astronomers have known to date about Eta Carinae’s outburst is from eyewitness accounts. Modern observations with science instruments were made years after the eruption actually happened. It’s as if nature has left behind a surveillance tape of the event, which we are now just beginning to watch. We can trace it year by year to see how the outburst changed.”
As one of the largest and brightest systems in the Milky Way, Eta Carinae is at home some 7,500 light years from Earth. During the outburst, it shed around one solar mass for every 20 years it was active and it became the second brightest star in the sky. During that time, its signature twin lobes formed. Being able to study an event like this would help us greatly understand the lives of powerful, massive stars on the eve of destruction. Because it is so close, Eta has also been prime candidate for spectroscopic studies, giving us insight on its behavior, including the temperature and speed of the ejected material.
But there’s more…
Eta Carinae could possibly be considered more famous for its “misbehavior”. Unlike stars of its class, Eta is more of a Luminous Blue Variable – an uber bright star known for periodic outbursts. The temperature of the outflow from Eta Carinae’s central region, for example, is about 8,500 degrees Fahrenheit (5,000 Kelvin), which is much cooler than that of other erupting stars. “This star really seems to be an oddball,” Rest said. “Now we have to go back to the models and see what has to change to actually produce what we are measuring.”
Through the eyes of the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s Blanco 4-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile, Rest and the team first spotted the light echo in 2010 and then again in 2011 while comparing visible light observations. From there he quickly compared it with another set of CTIO observations taken in 2003 by astronomer Nathan Smith of the University of Arizona in Tucson and pieced together the 20 year old puzzle. What he saw was nothing short of amazing…
“I was jumping up and down when I saw the light echo,” said Rest, who has studied light echoes from powerful supernova blasts. “I didn’t expect to see Eta Carinae’s light echo because the eruption was so much fainter than a supernova explosion. We knew it probably wasn’t material moving through space. To see something this close move across space would take decades of observations. We, however, saw the movement over a year’s time. That’s why we thought it was probably a light echo.”
While the images would appear to move with time, this is only an “optical illusion” as each parcel of light information arrives at a different time. Follow up observations include more spectroscopy pinpointing the outflow’s speed and temperature – where ejected material was clocked at speed of roughly 445,000 miles an hour (more than 700,000 kilometers an hour) – a speed which matched computer modeling predictions. Rest’s group also cataloged changes in the light echo intensity using the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network’s Faulkes Telescope South in Siding Spring, Australia. Their results were then compared the historic measurements during the actual event and the peak brightness findings matched!
You can bet the team is continuing to monitor this re-run very closely. “We should see brightening again in six months from another increase in light that was seen in 1844,” Rest said. “We hope to capture light from the outburst coming from different directions so that we can get a complete picture of the eruption.”