The asymmetric nebula surrounding the extreme red supergiant VY Canis Majoris

Nathan Smith, Roberta M Humphreys, Kris Davidson, Robert D Gehrz, M. T. Schuster, Joachim Krautter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

121 Scopus citations


We present HST/WFPC2 images plus ground-based infrared images and photometry of the very luminous OH/IR star VY Canis Majoris. Our WFPC2 data show a complex distribution of knots and filamentary arcs in the asymmetric reflection nebula around the obscured central star. The reflection arcs may result from multiple, asymmetric ejection episodes due to localized events on VY CMa's surface. Such events probably involve magnetic fields and convection, by analogy with solar activity. Surface photometry indicates that the star may have experienced enhanced mass loss over the past 1000 yr. We also demonstrate that the apparent asymmetry of the nebula results from a combination of high extinction and backscattering by dust grains. Thermal-infrared images reveal a more symmetric distribution, elongated along a nearly east-west direction. VY CMa probably has a flattened disklike distribution of dust with a northeast-southwest polar axis and may be experiencing activity analogous to solar prominences. The presence of an axis of symmetry raises interesting questions for a star the size of Saturn's orbit. Magnetic fields and surface activity may play an important role in VY CMa's mass-loss history.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1111-1125
Number of pages15
JournalAstronomical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2001


  • Circumstellar matter
  • Stars: individual (VY Canis Majoris)
  • Supergiants


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