In January 2002, a moderately dim star in the constellation Monoceros, the Unicorn, suddenly became 600 000 times more luminous than our Sun. This made it temporarily the brightest star in our Milky Way. The light from this eruption created a unique phenomenon known as a light echo when it reflected off dust shells around the star.
The brightness of V838 Monocerotis, as astronomers call the star, has long since returned to normal levels. Observations by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope show remarkable details in the shells of dust lit by the titanic stellar eruption. Astronomers may be able to probe the entire 3D structure of the dust shells surrounding this aging star in much the same way as a doctor does a CAT scan on a patient. The results will appear on 27 March 2003 in Nature.
Astronomers last saw light echoing off dust around stars in our Milky Way in 1936, long before Hubble was able to study this rare sight in the underworld of dusty, black interstellar space.
"As light from the outburst continues to reflect off the dust surrounding the star, we view continuously changing cross-sections of the dust envelope. Hubbles sharp view is allowing us to do astronomical tomography of the dust with unprecedented resolution." says the lead observer, astronomer Howard Bond of the Space Telescope Science Institute in the United States.
Lars Lindberg Christensen | alfa
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