A very large star located about 25,000 light-years away from Earth and close to the heart of the Milky Way Galaxy had dimmed by 97% before slowly getting brighter again. Described as being a blinking star, it is huge, measuring in at a hundred times larger than our sun.
The star, which has been named VVV-WIT-08, began to fade in the early part of 2012 and by April of that year it had almost completely disappeared. Then over the following hundred days, it began to brighten back up. Astronomers were able to study the event by analyzing data collected by the Vista Telescope that is run by the European Southern Observatory in Chile.
As for what caused the mysterious fading of the star’s light, it is believed that it was either from a companion star or an orbiting planet that has a dust disc surrounding it. The astronomers have calculated that the disc would have had a radius that measured a quarter of the distance been Earth and our sun at the very least.
Experts are unsure as to when VVV-WIT-08 will dim again, but it may possibly occur within the next 20 to 200 years. Interestingly, astronomers have also found two other blinking stars in close proximity to VVV-WIT-08; however, they have a lot less information on those two – at least for now. (Pictures of VVV-WIT-08 fading and returning back to its normal brightness can be seen here.)
The discovery of the blinking VVV-WIT-08 actually wasn’t the first one to be found. The huge star Epsilon Aurigae becomes approximately 50% dimmer every 27 years for a period of up to 730 days because of a large dust disc passing by it.
And in a binary system called TYC 2505-672-1, a huge red star is dimmed every 69 years for a period of three and a half years because of a disc surrounding its companion star.
These are important discoveries in regards to learning more about blinking stars. Dr. Leigh Smith from Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy explained, “Once you start to build up collections of several of these things, you can look at their properties in aggregate and unpick the mysteries of where these discs come from,” adding, “It allows us to learn how these systems evolve and what they do at the end of their lives.”
The study was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society where it can be read in full.