Epsilon Aurigae

Epsilon Aurigae
Epsilon Aurigae A
Auriga constellation map.png
Epsilon Aurigae is located slightly below Capella, the brightest star in the constellation.
Observation data
Epoch J2000      Equinox J2000
Constellation Auriga
Right ascension 05h 01m 58.1s
Declination +43° 49′ 24″
Apparent magnitude (V) 3.04
Spectral type F0II-III? / B5V[1]
U−B color index 0.30
B−V color index 0.54
R−I color index 0.45
Variable type Algol variable
Radial velocity (Rv) -2.5 ± 0.9 km/s
Proper motion (μ) RA: 0.18 mas/yr
Dec.: -2.31 mas/yr
Parallax (π) 1.53 ± 1.29[1] mas
Distance approx. 2000 ly
(approx. 700 pc)
Absolute magnitude (MV) −5.95
Mass 2.2–3.3 / 5.9[1] M
Radius 135 ± 5 / 3.9[1] R
Luminosity 18,000[citation needed] L
Temperature 7,750 / 15,000[1] K
Period (P) 9887 days
Semimajor axis (a) 22.4 m
Eccentricity (e) 0.07
Inclination (i) 87°
Longitude of the node (Ω) 264°
Periastron epoch (T) MJD 33373.5
Argument of periastron (ω)
Other designations
Almaaz, Al Anz, Haldus, ε Aur, 7 Aur, HR 1605, BD+43°1166, HD 31964, SAO 39955, FK5 183, GC 6123, ADS 3605, CCDM 05020+4350, HIP 23416.
Database references
Data sources:
Hipparcos Catalogue,
Bright Star Catalogue (5th rev. ed.),
9th Catalog of Spectroscopic Binary Orbits,
Variable Star Index (VSX)
Database references

Epsilon Aurigae (ε Aur, ε Aurigae) is a star in the constellation Auriga. It is traditionally known as Almaaz, Haldus, or Al Anz. Epsilon Aurigae is an unusual eclipsing binary system comprising an F0 supergiant and a companion which is generally accepted to be a huge dark disk orbiting an unknown object, possibly a binary system of two small B-type stars. About every 27 years, Epsilon Aurigae's brightness drops from an apparent visual magnitude of +2.92 to +3.83.[2] This dimming lasts 640–730 days.[3] In addition to this eclipse, the system also has a low amplitude pulsation with a non-consistent period of around 66 days.[4] The distance to the system is still a subject of debate, but modern estimates place it approximately 2,000 light years from Earth.

Epsilon Aurigae was first suspected to be a variable star when German astronomer Johann Fritsch observed it in 1821. Later observations by Eduard Heis and Friedrich Wilhelm Argelander reinforced Fritsch's initial suspicions and attracted attention to the star. Hans Ludendorff, however, was the first to study it in great detail. His work revealed that the system was an eclipsing binary variable, a star that dims when its partner obscures its light.

Epsilon Aurigae's eclipsing companion has been subject to much debate since the object does not emit as much light as is expected for an object its size.[5] As of 2008, the most popularly accepted model for this companion object is a binary star system surrounded by a massive, opaque disk of dust; theories speculating that the object is a large, semitransparent star or a black hole have since been discarded.


Observational history

Although the star is easily visible to the naked eye, Johann Fritsch's 1821 observations suggest he was the first to notice that the system was a variable. Eventually, from 1842 to 1848, German mathematician Eduard Heis and Prussian astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Argelander began observing it once every few years. Both Heis' and Argelander's data revealed that the star had become significantly dimmer by 1847, attracting the full attention of both men at that point. Epsilon Aurigae had brightened significantly, and had returned to "normal" by the following September.[5] As it attracted more attention, more and more data were compiled. The observational data revealed that Epsilon Aurigae did not just vary over a long period, but also experienced short-term variations in brightness as well.[5] Later eclipses took place between 1874 and 1875 and, nearly thirty years later, between 1901 and 1902.[5]

Hans Ludendorff, who had also been observing Epsilon Aurigae, was the first to conduct a detailed study of the star. In 1904, he published in Astronomische Nachrichten an article titled Untersuchungen über den Lichtwechsel von ε Aurigae (Investigations of the Light Changes of Epsilon Aurigae), where he suggested the star was an Algol variable and an eclipsing binary.[5]

Epsilon Aurigae has been targeted for observation by International Year of Astronomy observers from 2009 to 2011, the three years that overlap its next eclipse.[6]

Spitzer observations, 2009

At the January 2010 meeting of the American Astronomical Society, Donald Hoard of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena reported that observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope along with earlier observations point to the primary being a post-asymptotic giant branch star with about 2.2–3.3 times the mass of the Sun periodically eclipsed by just a single B class star inside a disk.[1] This was accomplished by pointing Spitzer at the star using the corner of four of Spitzer's pixels, instead of directly at one, to effectively reduce the telescope's sensitivity and preventing the star from overloading it, then using exposures of one-hundredth of a second, the shortest duration images that can be obtained by Spitzer. The data supports the presence of the companion star's disk, and establish the particle sizes as being like gravel rather than like fine dust.[7]

System components and variability

The Epsilon Aurigae system is now under intense observation and investigation due to the Spitzer and Citizen Sky programs. Therefore, its composition is currently in question.

The pair was formerly believed to be composed of one supergiant F-type star and a massive, though dim, eclipsing component whose exact nature was not known, although a 1985 model proposed it to be a disk of dust.[5] The two entities eclipse each other every 27.1 years, and each eclipse lasts approximately two years.[8] Midway through the eclipse, the system brightens slightly, due to the disk being edge-on, reducing its profile and blocking less of the light from Epsilon Aurigae A. The F-type supergiant and the dust disk are nearly thirty AU apart,[8] which is approximately the distance of the planet Neptune from the Sun.[9]

Visible component

The visible component, Epsilon Aurigae A, is a semiregular pulsating post-asymptotic giant branch star belonging to the spectral class F0.[5] This F-type star has around 135 times the diameter of the Sun,[1] and is 40,000 to 60,000 times as luminous. (Reliable sources vary considerably in their estimates of both quantities.) If the star were in the position of the Sun, it would envelop Mercury and possibly Venus. F-type stars like Epsilon Aurigae tend to glow white and display strong ionized calcium absorption lines and weak hydrogen absorption lines; being a class above the Sun (which is a G-type star), F-type stars are typically hotter than Sunlike stars.[10] Other F-type stars include Procyon's primary star, the brightest star in the Canis Minor constellation;[11] and Canopus, the second brightest star in the night sky and the brightest star in the Carina constellation.[12]

Eclipsing component

The eclipsing component emits a negligible amount of light, and is not visible to the naked eye. A heated region, however, has been discovered in the center of the object. The exact form of Epsilon Aurigae's eclipsing component is not known. Hypotheses concerning the nature of this second object have been proposed,[5] three of which have garnered attention from the scientific community.

The first hypothesis, set forth in 1937 by astronomers Gerard Kuiper, Otto Struve, and Bengt Strömgren, suggested that Epsilon Aurigae was a binary star system containing an F2 supergiant and an extremely cool "semitransparent" star that would completely eclipse its companion. However, the eclipsing star would scatter light emitted by its eclipsed companion resulting in the observed decrease in magnitude. The scattered light would be detected on Earth as a star visible to the naked eye, although this light would be significantly dimmed.[5] However, astronomer Su-Shu Huang published a paper in 1965 that outlined the defects of the Kuiper-Struve-Strömgren model, and proposed that the companion is a large disk system, edge-on from the perspective of Earth.[5] Robert Wilson, in 1971, proposed that a "central opening" lay in the disk, a possible reason for the system's sudden brightening mid-way through the eclipse.[5] In 2005, the system was observed in the ultraviolet by the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE); as the star system was not emitting energy at rates characteristic of objects such as the neutron star binary system Circinus X-1 or black hole binary system Cygnus X-1, the object occupying the center of the disk is not expected to be anything of the sort; in contrast, a new hypothesis has suggested that the central object is actually a B5-type star.[1][5]


"epsilon aurigae variable star chart"
A variable star chart for epsilon Aurigae. The numbered stars are comparison stars with a measured brightness in magnitudes (the numbers). The larger the number, the fainter the star.

The star is easily found because of its brightness and apparent proximity to the star Capella. It is the apex of the isosceles triangle forming the 'nose' of the constellation Auriga. The star is bright enough to be seen from most urban locations with moderate amounts of light pollution. Visual variable star observers make an estimate of its brightness by comparing its brightness with nearby stars with a known brightness value. Because it is so bright, photometric observers must use equipment with very large fields of view such as photoelectric photometers or DSLR cameras. A timetable of eclipse predictions is available[13] and first reports of the eclipse beginning surfaced in August 2009.[14]

Citizen Sky

The National Science Foundation has awarded the AAVSO a three-year grant to fund a citizen science project built around the 2009-2011 eclipse.[15][16][17] The project, called Citizen Sky,[18] is organizing and training participants to observe the eclipse and report their data to a central database. In addition, participants will help validate and analyze the data while testing their own theories and publishing original research articles in a peer-reviewed astronomical journal.


"Epsilon Aurigae" is the system's Bayer designation (invented by German astronomer Johann Bayer in his 1603 atlas, Uranometria).[19] The star is also known colloquially as "Almaaz", "Haldus" or "Al Anz." Both Almaaz[8] and Al Anz[20] derive from the Arabic الماعز al-mācz "(billy) goat", corresponding to the name of the star Capella, Latin for "nanny goat".[8]

In Chinese, (Zhù), meaning Pillars, refers to an asterism consisting of ε Aurigae, ζ Aurigae, η Aurigae, υ Aurigae, ν Aurigae, τ Aurigae, χ Aurigae and 26 Aurigae.[21] Consequently, ε Aurigae itself is known as 柱一 (Zhù yī, English: the First Star of Pillars.)[22]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g "System Properties Table (Citizen Sky)". http://www.citizensky.org/sites/default/files/SystemPropertiesTable.png. 
  2. ^ "Variable Star Index (VSX)". http://www.aavso.org/vsx/index.php?view=detail.top&oid=4299. Retrieved 25 August 2009. 
  3. ^ "Citizen Sky: The Star of Our Project". http://www.citizensky.org/content/star-our-project. Retrieved 25 August 2009. 
  4. ^ "AAVSO Variable Star of the Season: epsilon Aurigae". http://www.aavso.org/vstar/vsots/eps_aur.shtml. Retrieved 25 August 2009. [dead link]
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Epsilon Aurigae". Variable Star of the Month Series. American Association of Variable Star Observers. January 2008. http://www.aavso.org/vstar/vsots/eps_aur.shtml. Retrieved 19 December 2008. [dead link]
  6. ^ "Citizen Science: The International Year of Astronomy". International Year of Astronomy. American Astronomical Society. 2008. http://www.aavso.org/vstar/price-iya08.pdf. Retrieved 13 January 2009. 
  7. ^ Centuries-Old Star Mystery Coming to a Close, Whitney Clavin, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 5 January 2010, accessed 6 January 2010
  8. ^ a b c d "Almaaz". STARS. University of Illinois, ChampaignUrbana Campus. 2008. http://www.astro.uiuc.edu/~kaler/sow/almaaz.html. Retrieved 18 December 2008. 
  9. ^ "Uranus: Facts & Figures". Solar System Exploration. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. 2007. http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/profile.cfm?Object=Neptune&Display=Facts. Retrieved 3 January 2009. 
  10. ^ "Star Spectral Classification". HyperPhysics. Georgia State University. 2001. http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/Hbase/starlog/staspe.html. Retrieved 18 December 2008. 
  11. ^ "Database entry for Procyon AB". SIMBAD. Centre de Données astronomiques de Strasbourg. 2008. http://simbad.u-strasbg.fr/simbad/sim-basic?Ident=Procyon&submit=SIMBAD+search. Retrieved 18 December 2008. 
  12. ^ "Database entry for Canopus". SIMBAD. Centre de Données astronomiques de Strasbourg. http://simbad.u-strasbg.fr/simbad/sim-id?Ident=name+canopus. Retrieved 2008-12-18. 
  13. ^ "The Epsilon Aurigae Eclipse Campaign Homepage". http://mysite.du.edu/~rstencel/epsaur.htm. Retrieved 1 August 2009. 
  14. ^ "Epsilon Aurigae's Eclipse Begins". http://www.skyandtelescope.com/observing/highlights/51804622.html. Retrieved 1 August 2009. [dead link]
  15. ^ "Wired.com: Reach for the Citizen Sky". http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/08/citizensky/. Retrieved 25 August 2009. 
  16. ^ "Astronomy.com: Citizen Sky investigates Epsilon Aurigae". http://www.astronomy.com/asy/default.aspx?c=a&id=8578. Retrieved 25 August 2009. 
  17. ^ "International Year of Astronomy: Citizen Sky Invites Public to Help Resolve a Stellar Mystery". http://astronomy2009.org/news/updates/438/. Retrieved 25 August 2009. 
  18. ^ Citizen Sky Three-year citizen science project focused on Epsilon Aurigae
  19. ^ "astronomical map." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online School Edition. 3 January 2009 <http://www.school.eb.com/eb/article-52796>.
  20. ^ "Al Anz". Constellations and their Stars, Chris Dolan. University of Wisconsin, Madison Campus. 2008. http://www.astro.wisc.edu/~dolan/constellations/hr/1605.html. Retrieved 3 January 2009. 
  21. ^ (Chinese) 中國星座神話, written by 陳久金. Published by 台灣書房出版有限公司, 2005, ISBN 978-986-7332-25-7.
  22. ^ (Chinese) 香港太空館 - 研究資源 - 亮星中英對照表, Hong Kong Space Museum. Accessed on line November 23, 2010.

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