High spatial and spectral resolution spectroscopy of the OH/IR supergiant VY CMa and its circumstellar ejecta reveals evidence for high mass loss events from localized regions on the star occurring over the past 1000 yr. The reflected absorption lines and the extremely strong K I emission lines show a complex pattern of velocities in the ejecta. We show that the large, dusty northwest arc, expanding at ≈50 km s -1 with respect to the embedded star, is kinematically distinct from the surrounding nebulosity and was ejected about 400 yr ago. Other large, more filamentary loops were probably expelled as much as 800-1000 yr ago, whereas knots and small arcs close to the star resulted from more recent events 100-200 yr ago. The more diffuse, uniformly distributed gas and dust is surprisingly stationary, with little or no velocity relative to the star. This is not what we would expect for the circumstellar material from an evolved red supergiant with a long history of mass loss. We therefore suggest that the high mass loss rate for VY CMa is a measure of the mass carried out by these specific ejections accompanied by streams or flows of gas through low-density regions in the dust envelope. VY CMa may thus be our most extreme example of stellar activity, but our results also bring into question the evolutionary state of this famous star. In a separate appendix, we discuss the origin of the very strong K I and other rare emission lines in its spectrum.
- Circumstellar matter
- Stars: activity
- Stars: individual (VY Canis Majoris)
- Stars: winds, outflows