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e-Merlin, one of the SKA pathfinder telescopes, observes mysterious hot spots in a cool red supergiant

25 April 2013, Jodrell Bank Observatory, Manchester, UK –  Astronomers have released a new image of the outer atmosphere of Betelgeuse – one of the nearest red supergiants to Earth – revealing the detailed structure of the matter being thrown off the star.

The new image, taken by the e-MERLIN radio telescope array operated from the Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, also shows regions of surprisingly hot gas in the star’s outer atmosphere and a cooler arc of gas weighing almost as much as the Earth. e-MERLIN has been designated as a pathfinder for what is planned to be the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The constellation of Orion is visible to the left of the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank. Betelgeuse is the star at the top left of Orion. The inset shows the new e-MERLIN image of Betelgeuse. Credit: University of Manchester, Anthony Holloway.

Betelgeuse is easily visible to the unaided eye as the bright, red star on the shoulder of Orion the Hunter. The star itself is huge – 1,000 times larger than our Sun – but at a distance of about 650 light years it still appears as a tiny dot in the sky, so special techniques combining telescopes in arrays are required to see details of the star and the region around it.

The new e-MERLIN image of Betelgeuse – published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, shows its atmosphere extends out to five times the size of the visual surface of the star. It reveals two hot spots within the outer atmosphere and a faint arc of cool gas even farther out beyond the radio surface of the star.

The hot spots are separated by roughly half the visual diameter of the star and have a temperature of about 4,000-5,000 Kelvin, much higher than the average temperature of the radio surface of the star (about 1,200 Kelvin) and even higher than the visual surface (3,600 Kelvin). The arc of cool gas lies almost 7.4 billion kilometres away from the star – about the same distance as the farthest Pluto gets from the Sun. It is estimated to have a mass almost two thirds that of the Earth and a temperature of about 150 Kelvin.

Lead author Dr Anita Richards, from The University of Manchester, said that it was not yet clear why the hot spots are so hot. She said: “One possibility is that shock waves, caused either by the star pulsating or by convection in its outer layers, are compressing and heating the gas. Another is that the outer atmosphere is patchy and we are seeing through to hotter regions within. The arc of cool gas is thought to be the result of a period of increased mass loss from the star at some point in the last century but its relationship to structures like the hot spots, which lie much closer in, within the star’s outer atmosphere, is unknown.”

The new e-MERLIN radio image of Betelgeuse. The image is 1 arcsecond on a side, north is up and east is to the left. The observed frequency is 5.5-6.0 GHz (around 5.2cm wavelength). The image shows details on scales ranging from 60 to 180 milliarcseconds. The colours represent brightness ranging from red at the faintest to white at the brightest. Overlaid as a black circle is the visual size of the star (diameter 45 milliarcseconds). Credit: University of Manchester.

The mechanism by which supergiant stars like Betelgeuse lose matter into space is not well understood despite its key role in the lifecycle of matter, enriching the interstellar material from which future stars and planets will form. Detailed high-resolution studies of the regions around massive stars like the ones presented here are essential to improving our understanding.

Dr Richards, who is based in Manchester’s School of Physics and Astronomy, added: “Betelgeuse produces a wind equivalent to losing the mass of the Earth every three years, enriched with the chemicals that will go into the next generation of star and planet formation. The full detail of how these cool, evolved stars launch their winds is one of the remaining big questions in stellar astronomy.

“This is the first direct image showing hot spots so far from the centre of the star. We are continuing radio and microwave observations to help decide which mechanisms are most important in driving the stellar wind and producing these hot spots. This won’t just tell us how the elements that form the building blocks of life are being returned to space, it will also help determine how long it is before Betelgeuse explodes as a supernova.”

Future observations planned with e-MERLIN and other arrays, including ALMA and VLA, will test whether the hotspots vary in concert due to pulsation, or show more complex variability due to convection. If it is possible to measure a rotation speed this will identify in which layer of the star they originate.

Release available on The University of Manchester and the Jodrell Bank Observatory websites

Notes for editors

About e-MERLIN: e-MERLIN, the UK’s national radio astronomy facility, is operated from the Jodrell Bank Observatory by The University of Manchester on behalf of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council. Its power lies in its combination of the sharpness of view afforded by telescope separations of up to 217km, and its ability to detect very faint signals resulting from the array’s high bandwidth optical fibre connections. By connecting seven large radio telescopes, stretching from Cambridge to Cheshire (including the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank), e-MERLIN is able to produce images with the same detail as the Hubble Space Telescope but at radio rather than visible wavelengths. The signals from the telescopes are brought to Jodrell Bank on a dedicated optical fibre network whose high bandwidth allows the detection of very faint sources of radio emission. At Jodrell Bank 210 Gb of data arrive from the seven telescopes each second. These signals are combined in the correlator, a specialised supercomputer which carries out one thousand million million operations per second. For the signals from each telescope to be accurately combined, they must be synchronised at the level of a few million millionths of a second. The application of these fibre technologies and signal synchronisation techniques have led to e-MERLIN being designated as a pathfinder for what is planned to be the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array.

About the SKA: The Square Kilometre Array will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. The total collecting area will be approximately one square kilometre giving 50 times the sensitivity, and 10 000 times the survey speed, of the best current-day telescopes. The SKA will be built in Southern Africa and in Australia. Thousands of receptors will extend to distances of 3 000 km from the central regions. The SKA will address fundamental unanswered questions about our Universe including how the first stars and galaxies formed after the big bang, how dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the Universe, the role of magnetism in the cosmos, the nature of gravity, and the search for life beyond Earth. Construction of phase one of the SKA is scheduled to start in 2016. The SKA Organisation, with its headquarters at Jodrell Bank Observatory, near Manchester, UK, was established in December 2011 as a not-for-profit company in order to formalise relationships between the international partners and centralise the leadership of the project. Members of the SKA Organisation as of March 2013:

  • Australia: Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research
  • Canada: National Research Council
  • China: Ministry of Science and Technology
  • Germany: Federal Ministry of Education and Research
  • Italy: National Institute for Astrophysics
  • Netherlands: Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research
  • New Zealand: Ministry of Economic Development
  • Republic of South Africa: National Research Foundation
  • Sweden: Onsala Space Observatory
  • United Kingdom: Science and Technology Facilities Council

Associate member:

  • India: National Centre for Radio Astrophysics

SKA website: skatelescope.org

For more information about this release:

Aeron Haworth, Media Relations
Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences
The University of Manchester
Tel: +44 (0) 161 275 8387
Mob: +44 (0) 7717 881563
Email: aeron.haworth@manchester.ac.uk

For more information about the SKA:

William Garnier, Chief Communications Officer
SKA Organisation
Tel: +44 (0) 161 306 9613
Mob: + 44 (9) 7814 908 932
E-mail: w.garnier@skatelescope.org