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Mysterious Dimming of a Massive Star Explained by Astronomers

Highlights

  • RW Cephei's dimming was one-third its brightness.

  • Astronomers used CHARA Array for detailed study.

  • Similar to Betelgeuse, dust from mass ejections caused dimming.

A massive hypergiant star located approximately 16,000 light-years away has undergone an extraordinary dimming event, baffling astronomers by reducing its brightness by a third. Unlike typical binary star dimming caused by one star eclipsing another, this occurrence is considered unique due to the absence of a stellar companion and the star’s significant size.

Initial Observations and Star Characteristics

RW Cephei, the hypergiant in question, boasts a radius nearly a thousand times that of the Sun, making it one of the most colossal stars known. Although variability in luminosity is common among stars, RW Cephei’s fluctuation was too extreme to be attributed to its semiregular variability pattern.

The Astronomical Investigation

The unusual dimming was detected by astronomers using the CHARA Array at Georgia State University. This network of six telescopes allowed for a detailed analysis of the star, culminating in a published study and presentation at the 243rd AAS Conference. The study’s lead, Narsireddy Anugu, and his team aimed to capture the first detailed images of RW Cephei, hoping to identify the cause of its dimming.

Initial reports by astronomers Wolfgang Vollmann and Costantino Sigismondi in 2022 indicated a significant dimming of RW Cephei over recent years. Their findings drew parallels with the famous dimming of the red supergiant Betelgeuse in 2019. While Betelgeuse’s dimming was attributed to dust formation from a gas ejection, RW Cephei’s larger dimming magnitude suggested a similar yet more intense event.

CHARA’s high-resolution capabilities revealed that RW Cephei’s shape was not uniform, prompting further analysis using advanced image reconstruction algorithms. These images uncovered convulsions on the star’s surface, leading to variations in brightness and an overall change in appearance throughout the observation period.

Complementary observations by Katherine Shepard, using both visual and infrared light, indicated the dimming was more pronounced in visible light, hinting at dust obstruction. This led researchers to conclude that RW Cephei had experienced a massive outburst akin to Betelgeuse, but on a scale large enough to block a significant portion of its visible light.

The findings suggest such dimming events are not isolated but part of a series related to mass loss in aging stars. This process, while still not entirely understood, appears to involve periodic, violent outbursts that can obscure a star’s light temporarily. The duration of these events can vary based on the star’s size and the extent of the ejected dust cloud.

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