We report on a recent event in which, after more than a decade of slowly fading, the visual brightness of the massive young binary Z CMa suddenly started to rise by about 1 magnitude in December 1999, followed by a rapid decline to its previous brightness over the next six months. This behaviour is similar to that exhibited by this system around its eruption in February 1987. A comparison of the intrinsic luminosities of the system with recent evolutionary calculations shows that Z CMa may consist of a 16 M ⊙ B0 IIIe primary star and a ∼3 M ⊙ FUor secondary with a common age of ∼ 3 × 10 5 yr. We also compare new high-resolution spectra obtained in Jan. and Feb. 2000, during the recent rise in brightness, with archive data from 1991 and 1996. The spectra are rich in emission lines, which originate from the envelope of the early B-type primary star. The strength of these emission lines increased strongly with the brightness of Z CMa. We interpret the collected spectral data in terms of an accretion disc with atmosphere around the Herbig B0e component of Z CMa, which has expanded during the outbursts of 1987 and 2000. A high resolution profile of th
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