Evolved star water maser cloud size determined by star size

A.M.S. Richards, S. Etoka, M.D. Gray, E.E. Lekht, J.E. Mendoza-Torres, K. Murakawa, G. Rudnitskij, J.A. Yates

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Context. Cool, evolved stars undergo copious mass loss but the detailed mechanisms and the form in which the matter is returned to the ISM are still under debate. Aims. We investigated the structure and evolution of the wind at 5 to 50 stellar radii from asymptotic giant branch and red supergiant stars. Methods. 22-GHz water masers around seven evolved stars were imaged using MERLIN, at sub-AU resolution. Each source was observed at between 2 and 7 epochs, covering several stellar periods. We compared our results with long-term single dish monitoring provided by the Pushchino radio telescope. Results. The 22-GHz emission is located in approximately spherical, thick, unevenly filled shells. The outflow velocity increases twofold or more between the inner and outer shell limits. Water maser clumps could be matched at successive epochs separated by less than two years for AGB stars, or at least 5 years for RSG. This is much shorter than the decades taken for the wind to cross the maser shell, and comparison with spectral monitoring shows that some features fade and reappear. In five sources, most of the matched maser features brighten or dim in concert from one epoch to the next. A number of individual maser features show idiosyncratic behaviour, including one cloud in W Hya caught in the act of passing in front of a background cloud leading to 50-fold, transient amplification. The masing clouds are one or two orders of magnitude denser than the wind average and contain a substantial fraction of the mass loss in this region, with a filling factor < 1%. The RSG clouds are about ten times bigger than those round the AGB stars. Conclusions. Proper motions are dominated by expansion, with no systematic rotation. The maser clouds presumably survive for decades (the shell crossing time) but the masers are not always beamed in our direction. Only radiative effects can explain changes in flux density throughout the maser shells on short timescales. The size of the clouds is proportional to that of the parent star, being of a similar radius to the star once the clumps reach the 22-GHz maser shell. Stellar properties such as convection cells must determine the clumping scale.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberA16
Number of pages75
JournalAstronomy & Astrophysics
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2012


  • masers
  • stars: AGB and post-AGB
  • stars: mass-loss
  • supergiants
  • stars: winds
  • outflows
  • circumstellar matter


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