Epsilon Aurigae Eclipse Mystery Solved with Your Help

If you’ve been helping out with the Citizen Sky project to monitor Epsilon Aurigae, then congratulations – the first of the results are in! Donald W. Hoard, a research scientist at Caltech announced the findings at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C. this morning. We invited our readers to participate in monitoring the star in August of 2009, and combined with observations from Spitzer, a 200-year old mystery has potentially been solved.

Epsilon Aurigae is a bright star in the constellation Auriga. It began to dim in brightness last August, which it does every 27 years. The star dims for over 2 years, with a slight brightening in the middle of the eclipse, making it the longest known orbital period for a stellar eclipse. The Citizen Sky project invited professional and amateur astronomers alike to aid in the observation of the star during this eclipse.

What exactly passes in front of the star was a mystery, though it was thought that a large disk of material with two stars orbiting tightly in the center is the cause of the eclipse. The disk itself is pretty huge – on the order of 8 astronomical units. There is a slight brightening during the middle of the eclipse that led astronomers to believe there is a hole created by the two stars in the center.

“If [Epsilon Aurigae] were an F star, with about 20 times the mass of the Sun…a single B star at the center of the disk doesn’t have enough mass to explain the orbital dynamics,” Hoard said. Other possibilities proposed were the presence of a black hole at the center of the disk, but there were no telltale X-rays coming from the system that would show a black hole was heating up matter in the disk.

Through observations by astronomers that participated in the project, as well as observations made by the Spitzer space telescope, a major revision of the properties of Epsilon Aurigae itself were in order.

“What we were most pleased to find an answer to… was that the results strongly tip towards a 2 solar-mass dying star. Sometime in the next few thousand years it will emerge as a planetary nebula,” Hoard said.

This means that instead of being a 20 solar-mass F-star supergiant, Epsilon Aurigae is in fact a 2 solar-mass F-star which is in the last stages of its life, and thus giant in size – about 300 Suns across. This, combined with a single B-star of about 5.9 solar masses at the center of the disk that orbits Epsilon Aurigae fit the observations very well, Hoard said.

Arne Henden of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), commenting on Hoard’s presentation at the press conference, said “Don says that we solved it, and I disagree. We need to determine the nature of the dusty disk that is involved – these are things that you see around young stellar objects, not older stellar objects.”

Hoard said that there was a curious property of the disk in that it was composed of larger grains of dust – more like grains of sand than microscopic dust motes.

“The observations that are being made by Citizen Sky project…will hopefully help answer this by providing answers about the composition of the disk and the temperature zones as the eclipse continues. We have these results in large part due to the effort of this huge group of citizen astronomers that are observing Epsilon Aurigae,” he said.

Epsilon Aurigae is still undergoing its eclipse, though the first phase ended right around the New Years Eve 2009. It will continue to be dim until early 2011, when it will begin to brighten again. There is still a lot to be answered about this system, and your help is needed, so keep (or start) observing and reporting! For more information on how to do so, visit Citizen Sky.

Source: AAS press conference on USTREAM, Citizen Sky press release


Altazimuth is a contraction of altitude-azimuth; in astronomy it most often refers to a type of telescope mount (and is sometimes called alt-az), but it can also mean a coordinate system.

Altitude means the angular distance above the horizon; straight up (overhead) is 90o (and is called the zenith). Azimuth is also an angular distance, measured clockwise from north (so east is 90o). Any point, or direction, in the sky has one – and only one – altitude and azimuth; in other words, the altitude and azimuth are the coordinates of the point (on the celestial sphere).

An altazimuth telescope mount is one that can move separately in altitude (up and down, vertically) and azimuth (side to side, horizontally). Small telescopes used by amateur astronomers tend to have altazimuth mounts; larger ones tend to have equatorial mounts … unless they are Dobsonian. Why? Because while alt-az mounts are generally cheaper, tracking astronomical objects (like stars) is much easier with equatorial mounts.

Historically, the telescopes used by professional astronomers did not have alt-az mounts, because automatic tracking was impossible. As computers became powerful and cheap enough, they could be used to control the motors on each axis of an altazimuth mount; today, almost all ground-based astronomical telescopes have altazimuth mounts, whether optical, radio, or even high energy gamma ray! The first really large optical telescope to use an altazimuth mount is the 6-meter Bol’shoi Teleskop Azimultal’nyi, in Russia.

Universe Today’s Telescope Mount, Telescope Parts, Telescope Tripod, and How To Use a Telescope are great resources for learning more.

The Astronomy Cast episode Choosing and Using a Telescope covers the benefits of alt-az mounts (vs equatorial), and Telescopes, the Next Level gives insight into tomorrow’s professional ones.