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News Release 593 of 1048

March 26, 2003 02:00 PM (EST)

News Release Number: STScI-2003-10

Hubble Watches Light from Mysterious Erupting Star Reverberate Through Space

March 26, 2003: In January 2002, a dull star in an obscure constellation suddenly became 600,000 times more luminous than our Sun, temporarily making it the brightest star in our Milky Way galaxy. The mysterious star, called V838 Monocerotis, has long since faded back to obscurity. But observations by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope of a phenomenon called a "light echo" around the star have uncovered remarkable new features. These details promise to provide astronomers with a CAT-scan-like probe of the three-dimensional structure of shells of dust surrounding an aging star.

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Q & A: Understanding the Discovery

  1. 1. What is a light echo?

  2. It is light from a stellar explosion echoing off dust surrounding the star. V838 Monocerotis produced enough energy in a brief flash to illuminate surrounding dust, like a spelunker taking a flash picture of the walls of an undiscovered cavern. The star presumably ejected the illuminated dust shells in previous outbursts. Light from the latest outburst travels to the dust and then is reflected to Earth. Because of this indirect path, the light arrives at Earth months after light from the star that traveled directly toward Earth.

  3. 2. Why did the star produce this outburst?

  4. Astronomers do not fully understand the star's outburst. It was somewhat similar to that of a nova, a more common stellar outburst. A typical nova is a normal star that dumps hydrogen onto a compact white-dwarf companion star. The hydrogen piles up until it spontaneously explodes by nuclear fusion — like a titanic hydrogen bomb. This exposes a searing stellar core, which has a temperature of hundreds of thousands of degrees Fahrenheit.

    By contrast, V838 Monocerotis did not expel its outer layers. Instead, it grew enormously in size. Its surface temperature dropped to temperatures that were not much hotter than a light bulb. This behavior of ballooning to an enormous size, but not losing its outer layers, is very unusual and completely unlike an ordinary nova explosion.

    The outburst may represent a transitory stage in a star's evolution that is rarely seen. The star has some similarities to highly unstable aging stars called eruptive variables, which suddenly and unpredictably increase in brightness.

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Credit: NASA, ESA and H.E. Bond (STScI)