R Sculptoris

This image, which was taken by the Very Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory, shows an extremely small section of the sky: approximately 20×20 milliarcseconds. For comparison, Jupiter as seen from Earth has an angular size of roughly 40 arcseconds. The ghostly image is of a distant, pulsating red giant star known as R Sculptoris, which is 1200 light-years away in the constellation of Sculptor. It’s a carbon-rich asymptotic giant branch star that is nearing the end of its life. As the end comes, low- and intermediate-mass stars cool off, create extended atmospheres, and lose a lot of their mass—before becoming spectacular planetary nebulae.

One odd feature of R Sculptoris is its dominant bright spot which seems to be two or three times brighter than the rest of the star. Astronomers speculate that R Sculptoris is surrounded by giant “clumps” of stellar dust that are peeling away from the shedding star. This bright spot is probably a region around the star with less dust, allowing more light to escape.

Image Credit: ESO