Recent observations reveal that a red giant has spewed a mass equivalent to a thousand Earths into orbit, three times more than expected by current theories. The observations were made by ALMA (the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), a collection of radio telescopes that will be the most massive collection of its kind upon completion in 2013.
Despite being unfinished, with only half its antennas in place, this observation proves that the array is already capable of giving us new science.
The red giant, called R Sculptoris, was already known to be surrounded by a cloud of dust and gas, but when the ALMA antennas were pointed at it they realized that this dust and gas had been pulled into an intricate spiral structure by the gravity of its nearby partner star (the two are in orbit around each other).
From the observations, they were able to determine that the red giant underwent a “thermal pulse” that happened 1800 years ago, and lasted for 200 years. This means that it spat out stellar mass an incredible 30 times faster than previously suspected.
This is the first time it has been possible to measure how rapidly mass is ejected during these thermal pulses. This is important, because these ejections from red giants are responsible for a great deal of the dust and gas that goes on to form later stars and planets, and could have something to do with the balance of elements that allowed life to form on Earth.