Context. The mechanism of disk formation around fast-rotating Be stars is not well understood. In particular, it is not clear which mechanisms operate, in addition to fast rotation, to produce the observed variable ejection of matter. The star Achernar is a privileged laboratory to probe these additional mechanisms because it is close, presents B-Be phase variations on timescales ranging from 6 yr to 15 yr, a companion star was discovered around it, and probably presents a polar wind or jet. Aims. Despite all these previous studies, the disk around Achernar was never directly imaged. Therefore we seek to produce an image of the photosphere and close environment of the star. Methods. We used infrared long-baseline interferometry with the PIONIER/VLTI instrument to produce reconstructed images of the photosphere and close environment of the star over four years of observations. To study the disk formation, we compared the observations and reconstructed images to previously computed models of both the stellar photosphere alone (normal B phase) and the star presenting a circumstellar disk (Be phase). Results. The observations taken in 2011 and 2012, during the quiescent phase of Achernar, do not exhibit a disk at the detection limit of the instrument. In 2014, on the other hand, a disk was already formed and our reconstructed image reveals an extended H-band continuum excess flux. Our results from interferometric imaging are also supported by several H-alpha line profiles showing that Achernar started an emission-line phase sometime in the beginning of 2013. The analysis of our reconstructed images shows that the 2014 near-IR flux extends to 1.7 – 2.3 equatorial radii. Our model-independent size estimation of the H-band continuum contribution is compatible with the presence of a circumstellar disk, which is in good agreement with predictions from Be-disk models.
G. Vedova, F. Millour, A. Souza, et. al.
Thu, 9 Mar 17