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News Release 106 of 218

March 4, 2004 06:00 AM (EST)

News Release Number: STScI-2004-10

Space Phenomenon Imitates Art in Universe's Version of van Gogh Painting

A Hubble Heritage Release

March 4, 2004: This image resembling Vincent van Gogh's painting, "Starry Night," is Hubble's latest view of an expanding halo of light around a distant star, named V838 Monocerotis (V838 Mon). This Hubble image was obtained with the Advanced Camera for Surveys on February 8, 2004. The illumination of interstellar dust comes from the red supergiant star at the middle of the image, which gave off a flashbulb-like pulse of light two years ago. V838 Mon is located about 20,000 light-years away from Earth in the direction of the constellation Monoceros, placing the star at the outer edge of our Milky Way galaxy.

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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 immense 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 and The Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)