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Up until around 1980, the Stingray was an ordinary B1 post-AGB star, but then it suddenly sprouted bright emission lines like in a planetary nebula (PN), and soon after this the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) discovered a small PN around the star, so apparently we have caught a star in the act of ionizing a PN. We report here on a well-sampled light curve from 1889 to 2015, with unique coverage of the prior century plus the entire duration of the PN formation plus three decades of its aftermath. Surprisingly, the star anticipated the 1980s ionization event by declining from B = 10.30 in 1889 to B = 10.76 in 1980. Starting in 1980, the central star faded fast, at a rate of 0.20 mag year-1, reaching B = 14.64 in 1996. This fast fading is apparently caused by the central star shrinking in size. From 1994 to 2015, the V-band light curve is almost entirely from the flux of two bright [O iii] emission lines from the unresolved nebula, and it shows a consistent decline at a rate of 0.090 mag year-1. This steady fading (also seen in the radio and infrared) has a timescale equal to that expected for ordinary recombination within the nebula, immediately after a short-duration ionizing event in the 1980s. We are providing the first direct measure of the rapidly changing luminosity of the central star on both sides of a presumed thermal pulse in 1980, with this providing a strong and critical set of constraints, and these are found to sharply disagree with theoretical models of PN evolution.

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Astrophysical Journal