Subjects

Abstract

Epsilon Aurigae (ε Aur) is a visually bright, eclipsing binary star system with a period of 27.1 years. The cause of each 18-month-long eclipse has been a subject of controversy for nearly 190 years1 because the companion has hitherto been undetectable. The orbital elements imply that the opaque object has roughly the same mass as the visible component, which for much of the last century was thought to be an F-type supergiant star with a mass of 15M (M, mass of the Sun). The high mass-to-luminosity ratio of the hidden object was originally explained by supposing it to be a hyperextended infrared star2 or, later, a black hole3 with an accretion disk, although the preferred interpretation was as a disk of opaque material4,5 at a temperature of 500 K, tilted to the line of sight6,7 and with a central opening8. Recent work implies that the system consists of a low-mass (2.2M–3.3M) visible F-type star, with a disk at 550 K that enshrouds a single B5V-type star9. Here we report interferometric images that show the eclipsing body moving in front of the F star. The body is an opaque disk and appears tilted as predicted7. Adopting a mass of 5.9M for the B star, we derive a mass of (3.6 ± 0.7)M for the F star. The disk mass is dynamically negligible; we estimate it to contain 0.07M (M, mass of the Earth) if it consists purely of dust.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

References

  1. 1.

    & Toward solving the mysteries of the exotic eclipsing binary ε Aurigae: two thousand years of observations and future possibilities. Astron. Soc. Pacif. Conf. Ser. 279, 121–142 (2002)

  2. 2.

    , & The interpretation of ε Aurigae. Astrophys. J. 86, 570–612 (1937)

  3. 3.

    Evidence for a collapsar in the binary system ε Aur. Nature 229, 178–180 (1971)

  4. 4.

    An interpretation of ε Aurigae. Astrophys. J. 141, 976–984 (1965)

  5. 5.

    ed. The 1982–1984 Eclipse of Epsilon Aurigae (NASA Conf. Publ. 2384, NASA, 1985)

  6. 6.

    et al. Epsilon Aurigae: polarization, light curves, and geometry of the 1982–1984 eclipse. Astrophys. J. 300, L11–L14 (1986)

  7. 7.

    A model of Epsilon Aurigae. Astrophys. J. 170, 529–539 (1971)

  8. 8.

    , , & Interpreting Epsilon Aurigae. Astrophys. J. 367, 278–287 (1991)

  9. 9.

    , & Taming the invisible monster: system parameter constraints for ε Aurigae from the far ultraviolet to the mid-infrared. Astrophys. J. (in the press)

  10. 10.

    et al. First results from the CHARA Array. II. A description of the instrument. Astrophys. J. 628, 453–465 (2005)

  11. 11.

    et al. in Proc. Adv. Stellar Interferom. abstr. 62681P (SPIE Conf. Ser. 6268, SPIE, 2006)

  12. 12.

    et al. Interferometric studies of the extreme binary ε Aurigae: pre-eclipse observations. Astrophys. J. 689, L137–L140 (2008)

  13. 13.

    et al. Imaging the surface of Altair. Science 317, 342–345 (2007)

  14. 14.

    , , & A data exchange standard for optical (visible/IR) interferometry. Publ. Astron. Soc. Pacif. 117, 1255–1262 (2005)

  15. 15.

    , & in Proc. Adv. Stellar Interferom. abstr. 62681T (SPIE Conf. Ser. 6268, SPIE, 2006)

  16. 16.

    & in Proc. Opt. Infrared Interferom. abstr. 70133X (SPIE Conf. Ser. 7013, SPIE, 2008)

  17. 17.

    et al. in Proc. Adv. Stellar Interferom. abstr. 62681U (SPIE Conf. Ser. 6268, SPIE, 2006)

  18. 18.

    et al. First resolved images of the eclipsing and interacting binary β Lyrae. Astrophys. J. 684, L95–L98 (2008)

  19. 19.

    , , & The Epsilon Aurigae secondary: a hydrostatically supported disk. Astrophys. J. 465, 371–384 (1996)

  20. 20.

    et al. The HIPPARCOS Catalogue. Astron. Astrophys. 323, L49–L52 (1997)

  21. 21.

    et al. Epsilon Aurigae: an improved spectroscopic orbital solution. Astrophys. J. 139, 1254–1260 (2010)

Download references

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the firefighters who defended Mount Wilson Observatory from the Station Fire, and L. Webster and the staff at Mount Wilson Observatory for facilitating our observations. We acknowledge with thanks the variable-star observations from the AAVSO International Database contributed by observers worldwide and used in this research. The CHARA Array, operated by Georgia State University, was built with funding provided by the US National Science Foundation (NSF), Georgia State University, the W. M. Keck Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. CHARA is operated under continuing support from the NSF. This research is supported by the NSF as well as by funding from the office of the Dean of the College of Arts and Science at Georgia State University. J.D.M. acknowledges funding from the University of Michigan and the NSF. MIRC was supported by funds from the NSF. B.K. and R.S. thank J. Hopkins for ongoing photometry and are grateful for the bequest of William Herschel Womble in support of astronomy at the University of Denver.

Author Contributions R.S. originally proposed this research task, facilitated observations and arranged for concurrent observations at other research facilities. Raw data from MIRC was reduced by J.D.M. using calibrated diameters from X.C. and literature sources. Image reconstruction and modelling was performed by F.B., J.D.M. and B.K. Determination of the F star’s translational speed was done by G.S. and B.K. Observations were planned by R.S., G.S., B.K. and M.Z. and were facilitated by J.S., E.P., L.S., N. Thureau, N. Turner, and X.C. The data necessary for this publication was collected by M.Z., B.K., G.S., C.F., P.J.S.-G., R.S. and F.B. Discussion of historical models and their implication to observations was conducted by S.M.C., B.K. and R.S. Administrative oversight and access to CHARA was provided by H.M. and T.t.B. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Denver, 2112 East Wesley Avenue, Denver, Colorado 80208, USA

    • Brian Kloppenborg
    •  & Robert Stencel
  2. Department of Astronomy, University of Michigan, 500 Church Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109-1090, USA

    • John D. Monnier
    • , Fabien Baron
    •  & Xiao Che
  3. Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy, Georgia State University, PO Box 3969, Atlanta, Georgia 30302-3969, USA

    • Gail Schaefer
    • , Hal McAlister
    • , Theo ten Brummelaar
    • , Chris Farrington
    • , P. J. Sallave-Goldfinger
    • , Judit Sturmann
    • , Laszlo Sturmann
    •  & Nils Turner
  4. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 4800 Oak Grove Drive, M.S. 169-327, Pasadena, California 91101, USA

    • Ming Zhao
  5. School of Physics and Astronomy, University of St Andrews, North Haugh, St Andrews KY16 9SS, UK

    • Ettore Pedretti
    •  & Nathalie Thureau
  6. Physics Department, California Institute of Technology, 1200 East California Avenue, Pasadena, California 91125, USA

    • Sean M. Carroll

Authors

  1. Search for Brian Kloppenborg in:

  2. Search for Robert Stencel in:

  3. Search for John D. Monnier in:

  4. Search for Gail Schaefer in:

  5. Search for Ming Zhao in:

  6. Search for Fabien Baron in:

  7. Search for Hal McAlister in:

  8. Search for Theo ten Brummelaar in:

  9. Search for Xiao Che in:

  10. Search for Chris Farrington in:

  11. Search for Ettore Pedretti in:

  12. Search for P. J. Sallave-Goldfinger in:

  13. Search for Judit Sturmann in:

  14. Search for Laszlo Sturmann in:

  15. Search for Nathalie Thureau in:

  16. Search for Nils Turner in:

  17. Search for Sean M. Carroll in:

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Brian Kloppenborg or Robert Stencel.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Figure 1 with legend, Supplementary Tables 1-2 and Supplementary References.

About this article

Publication history

Received

Accepted

Published

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature08968

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.