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Strange Spiral Orbiting Giant Red Star 'May Be Last Thing Humans See'

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An incredible photo of a pulsing, dying red star has revealed strange 3D 'spirals' around its centre.

The scientists at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (Alma), the world's most powerful astronomical instrument, want to know more about the life cycle of stars - and what happens when they die.

They are studying the star R Sculptoris, located about 780 light-years from Earth, because it is similar to our own sun - albeit further into its life cycle.

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Above: R Sculptoris

At the end of their lives, stars like R Sculptoris and those with masses up to eight times that of the Sun expand hugely while throwing off masses of material, in the form of radiation and the raw materials for the formation of new stars, interrupted by 'thermal pulses' of explosive helium.

Our own sun will likely end this way in about 5 billion years.

It had been thought that the star was a simple red giant with an outer spherical shell.

But when the scientists used their telescope - made of 66 antennas in the Atacama desert, Chile - to look at R Sculptoris in more detail, they were stunned by what they saw.

And even though the telescope is currently operating at half its full power, they have already made an amazing discovery.

Instead of a shell around R Sculptoris they have found a spiral of material, caused by a thermal pulse 1800 years ago that lasted for about 200 years - and that will allow them to study how the star died in far greater detail.

Matthias Maercker, from the Argelander Institute for Astronomy, University of Bonn, Germany, said that the team can use the spirals to peer back in time and study them like the rings on a tree.

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Above: This wide-field image shows the patch of sky around the red giant variable star R Sculptoris.

"We can understand much better what happens to the star before, during and after the thermal pulse, by studying how the shell and the spiral structure are shaped," says Maercker.

"We always expected ALMA to provide us with a new view of the Universe, but to be discovering unexpected new things already, with one of the first sets of observations is truly exciting."

He added: "In the near future, observations of stars like R Sculptoris with ALMA will help us to understand how the elements we are made up of reached places like the Earth. They also give us a hint of what our own star's far future might be like."

The spiral is probably caused by a 'companion star' orbiting nearby, the scientists said - though we aren't able to see it, and the theory is not yet confirmed.

But the team isn't finished - even more amazing views of the star will be possible in 2013, when the full capacity of the telescope is switched on.