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Astronomers have used the ALMA array in Chile to take the first infrared image of a red giant star that has a mass similar to the Sun.
The dotted ring in the the image, cropped to post here, shows the Earth’s orbit. The star is farther along in its evolution than the Sun, and has expanded as it begins to use up its nuclear fuel.
The observations have also surprised the scientists. The presence of an unexpectedly compact and bright spot provides evidence that the star has surprisingly hot gas in a layer above the star’s surface: a chromosphere. “Our measurements of the bright spot suggest there are powerful shock waves in the star’s atmosphere that reach higher temperatures than are predicted by current theoretical models for AGB stars,” says Theo Khouri, astronomer at Chalmers and member of the team.
An alternative possibility is at least as surprising: that the star was undergoing a giant flare when the observations were made.
The handful of infrared images that astronomers have taken so far of several red giant stars indicates that these stars no longer look like the Sun, with a clear and precise spherical shape, but are puffed up almost like a cloud, with many uneven layers and complex extensions produced by their chaotic nature. This image of W Hydrae reinforces this impression.