Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Flattest Star Ever Seen

11.06.2003


VLT Interferometer Measurements of Achernar Challenge Stellar Theory


The shape of the bright southern star Achernar; from VLTI observations (model)



To a first approximation, planets and stars are round. Think of the Earth we live on. Think of the Sun, the nearest star, and how it looks in the sky.

But if you think more about it, you realize that this is not completely true. Due to its daily rotation, the solid Earth is slightly flattened ("oblate") - its equatorial radius is some 21 km (0.3%) larger than the polar one. Stars are enormous gaseous spheres and some of them are known to rotate quite fast, much faster than the Earth. This would obviously cause such stars to become flattened. But how flat?


Recent observations with the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) at the ESO Paranal Observatory have allowed a group of astronomers to obtain by far the most detailed view of the general shape of a fast-spinning hot star, Achernar (Alpha Eridani), the brightest in the southern constellation Eridanus (The River).

They find that Achernar is much flatter than expected - its equatorial radius is more than 50% larger than the polar one! In other words, this star is shaped very much like the well-known spinning-top toy, so popular among young children.

The high degree of flattening measured for Achernar - a first in observational astrophysics - now poses an unprecedented challenge for theoretical astrophysics. The effect cannot be reproduced by common
models of stellar interiors unless certain phenomena are incorporated, e.g. meridional circulation on the surface ("north-south streams") and non-uniform rotation at different depths inside the star.

As this example shows, interferometric techniques will ultimately provide very detailed information about the shapes, surface conditions and interior structure of stars.

The full text of this Press Release, with three photos (ESO PR Photos 15a-c/03) and all related links, is available at:
http://www.eso.org/outreach/press-rel/pr-2003/pr-14-03.html

VLTI observations of Achernar

Test observations with the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) at the Paranal Observatory proceed well, and the astronomers have now begun to exploit many of these first measurements for scientific purposes.

One spectacular result, just announced, is based on a series of observations of the bright, southern star Achernar (Alpha Eridani; the name is derived from "Al Ahir al Nahr" = "The End of the River"), carried out between September 11 and November 12, 2002. The two 40-cm siderostat test telescopes that served to obtain "First Light" with the VLT Interferometer in March 2001 were also used for these observations. They were placed at selected positions on the VLT Observing Platform at the top of Paranal to provide a "cross-shaped" configuration with two "baselines" of 66 m and 140 m, respectively, at 90° angle, cf. PR Photo 15a/03.

At regular time intervals, the two small telescopes were pointed towards Achernar and the two light beams were directed to a common focus in the VINCI test instrument in the centrally located VLT Interferometric Laboratory. Due to the Earth’’s rotation during the observations, it was possible to measure the angular size of the star (as seen in the sky) in different directions.

Achernar’s profile

A first attempt to measure the geometrical deformation of a rapidly rotating star was carried out in 1974 with the Narrabri Intensity Interferometer (Australia) on the bright star Altair by British astronomer Hanbury Brown. However, because of technical limitations, those observations were unable to decide between different models for this star. More recently, Gerard T. Van Belle and collaborators observed Altair with the Palomar Testbed Interferometer (PTI), measuring its apparent axial ratio as 1.140 ± 0.029 and placing some constraints upon the relationship between rotation velocity and stellar inclination.

Achernar is a star of the hot B-type, with a mass of 6 times that of the Sun. The surface temperature is about 20,000 °C and it is located at a distance of 145 light-years.

The apparent profile of Achernar (PR Photo 15b/03), based on about 20,000 VLTI interferograms (in the K-band at wavelength 2.2 µm) with a total integration time of over 20 hours, indicates a surprisingly high axial ratio of 1.56 ± 0.05 [3]. This is obviously a result of Achernar’s rapid rotation.

Theoretical implications of the VLTI observations

The angular size of Achernar’’s elliptical profile as indicated in PR Photo 15b/03 is 0.00253 ± 0.00006 arcsec (major axis) and 0.00162 ± 0.00001 arcsec (minor axis) [4], respectively. At the indicated distance, the corresponding stellar radii are equal to 12.0 ± 0.4 and 7.7 ± 0.2 solar radii, or 8.4 and 5.4 million km, respectively. The first value is a measure of the star’’s equatorial radius. The second is an upper value for the polar radius - depending on the inclination of the star’s polar axis to the line-of-sight, it may well be even smaller.

The indicated ratio between the equatorial and polar radii of Achernar constitutes an unprecedented challenge for theoretical astrophysics, in particular concerning mass loss from the surface enhanced by the rapid rotation (the centrifugal effect) and also the distribution of internal angular momentum (the rotation velocity at different depths).

The astronomers conclude that Achernar must either rotate faster (and hence, closer to the "critical" (break-up) velocity of about 300 km/sec) than what the spectral observations show (about 225 km/sec from the widening of the spectral lines) or it must violate the rigid-body rotation.

The observed flattening cannot be reproduced by the "Roche-model" that implies solid-body rotation and mass concentration at the center of the star. The failure of that model is even more evident if the so-called "gravity darkening" effect is taken into account - this is a non-uniform temperature distribution on the surface which is certainly present on Achernar under such a strong geometrical deformation.

Outlook

This new measurement provides a fine example of what is possible with the VLT Interferometer already at this stage of implementation. It bodes well for the future research projects at this facility.

With the interferometric technique, new research fields are now opening which will ultimately provide much more detailed information about the shapes, surface conditions and interior structure of stars. And in a not too distant future, it will become possible to produce interferometric images of the disks of Achernar and other stars.

Richard West | alfa
Further information:
http://www.eso.org/outreach/press-rel/pr-2003/pr-14-03.html

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Computer model predicts how fracturing metallic glass releases energy at the atomic level
20.07.2018 | American Institute of Physics

nachricht What happens when we heat the atomic lattice of a magnet all of a sudden?
18.07.2018 | Forschungsverbund Berlin

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Future electronic components to be printed like newspapers

A new manufacturing technique uses a process similar to newspaper printing to form smoother and more flexible metals for making ultrafast electronic devices.

The low-cost process, developed by Purdue University researchers, combines tools already used in industry for manufacturing metals on a large scale, but uses...

Im Focus: First evidence on the source of extragalactic particles

For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.

To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...

Im Focus: Magnetic vortices: Two independent magnetic skyrmion phases discovered in a single material

For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.

Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...

Im Focus: Breaking the bond: To take part or not?

Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.

A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...

Im Focus: New 2D Spectroscopy Methods

Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.

"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Leading experts in Diabetes, Metabolism and Biomedical Engineering discuss Precision Medicine

13.07.2018 | Event News

Conference on Laser Polishing – LaP: Fine Tuning for Surfaces

12.07.2018 | Event News

11th European Wood-based Panel Symposium 2018: Meeting point for the wood-based materials industry

03.07.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

A smart safe rechargeable zinc ion battery based on sol-gel transition electrolytes

20.07.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Reversing cause and effect is no trouble for quantum computers

20.07.2018 | Information Technology

Princeton-UPenn research team finds physics treasure hidden in a wallpaper pattern

20.07.2018 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>