The yellow hypergiant HR 5171 A: Resolving a massive interacting binary in the common envelope phase

O. Chesneau, A. Meilland, E. Chapellier, F. Millour, A. M. Van Genderen, Y. Nazé, N. Smith, A. Spang, J. V. Smoker, L. Dessart, S. Kanaan, Ph Bendjoya, M. W. Feast, J. H. Groh, A. Lobel, N. Nardetto, S. Otero, R. D. Oudmaijer, A. G. Tekola, P. A. WhitelockC. Arcos, M. Curé, L. Vanzi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Only a few stars are caught in the very brief and often crucial stages when they quickly traverse the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, and none has yet been spatially resolved in the mass transfer phase. Aims. We initiated long-term optical interferometry monitoring of the diameters of massive and unstable yellow hypergiants (YHG) with the goal of detecting both the long-term evolution of their radius and shorter term formation of a possible pseudo-photosphere related to proposed large mass-loss events.Methods. We observed HR5171 A with AMBER/VLTI. We also examined archival photometric data in the visual and near-IR spanning more than 60 years, as well as sparse spectroscopic data. Results. HR 5171 A exhibits a complex appearance. Our AMBER data reveal a surprisingly large star for a YHG R* = 1315±260 R (or ∼6.1AU) at the distance of 3.6 ±0.5 kpc. The source is surrounded by an extended nebulosity, and these data also show a large level of asymmetry in the brightness distribution of the system, which we attribute to a newly discovered companion star locatedin front of the primary star. The companions signature is also detected in the visual photometry, which indicates an orbital period of Porb = 1304 ±6 d. Modeling the light curve with the NIGHTFALL program provides clear evidence that the system is a contact or possibly over-contact eclipsing binary. A total current system mass of 39+4022 M and a high mass ratio q ≥ 10 is inferred for the system.Conclusions. The low-mass companion of HR5171 A is very close to the primary star that is embedded within its dense wind. Tight constraints on the inclination and v sin i of the primary are lacking, which prevents us from determining its influence precisely on the mass-loss phenomenon, but the system is probably experiencing a wind Roche-Lobe overflow. Depending on the amount of angular momentum that can be transferred to the stellar envelope, HR5171 A may become a fast-rotating B[e]/luminous blue variable/Wolf-Rayet star. In any case, HR 5171 A highlights the possible importance of binaries for interpreting the unstable YHGs and for massive star evolution in general.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberA71
JournalAstronomy and astrophysics
StatePublished - Mar 2014


  • Binaries: close
  • Circumstellar matter
  • Stars: individual: HR 5171 A
  • Stars: mass-loss
  • Stars: massive
  • Techniques: high angular resolution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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