A detailed view of the gas shell around R Sculptoris with ALMA


Context. During the asymptotic giant branch (AGB) phase, stars undergo thermal pulses - short-lived phases of explosive helium burning in a shell around the stellar core. Thermal pulses lead to the formation and mixing-up of new elements to the stellar surface. They are hence fundamental to the chemical evolution of the star and its circumstellar envelope. A further consequence of thermal pulses is the formation of detached shells of gas and dust around the star, several of which have been observed around carbon-rich AGB stars. Aims. We aim to determine the physical properties of the detached gas shell around R Sculptoris, in particular the shell mass and temperature, and to constrain the evolution of the mass-loss rate during and after a thermal pulse. Methods. We analyse 12CO(1-0), 12CO(2-1), and 12CO(3-2) emission, observed with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) during Cycle 0 and complemented by single-dish observations. The spatial resolution of the ALMA data allows us to separate the detached shell emission from the extended emission inside the shell. We perform radiative transfer modelling of both components to determine the shell properties and the post-pulse mass-loss properties. Results. The ALMA data show a gas shell with a radius of 19″.5 expanding at 14.3 km s-1. The different scales probed by the ALMA Cycle 0 array show that the shell must be entirely filled with gas, contrary to the idea of a detached shell. The comparison to single-dish spectra and radiative transfer modelling confirms this. We derive a shell mass of 4.5 × 10-3 M⊙ with a temperature of 50 K. Typical timescales for thermal pulses imply a pulse mass-loss rate of 2.3 × 10-5 M⊙ yr-1. For the post-pulse mass-loss rate, we find evidence for a gradual decline of the mass-loss rate, with an average value of 1.6 × 10-5 M⊙ yr-1. The total amount of mass lost since the last thermal pulse is 0.03 M⊙, a factor four higher compared to classical models, with a sharp decline in mass-loss rate immediately after the pulse. Conclusions. We find that the mass-loss rate after a thermal pulse has to decline more slowly than generally expected from models of thermal pulses. This may cause the star to lose significantly more mass during a thermal pulse cycle, which affects the lifetime on the AGB and the chemical evolution of the star, its circumstellar envelope, and the interstellar medium

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