Variable accretion as a mechanism for brightness variations in T Tauri S*
Max-Planck Institut für Astronomie, Königstuhl 17, 69117 Heidelberg, Germany e-mail: email@example.com
2 Landessternwarte, Zentrum für Astronomie der Universität Heidelberg, Königstuhl 12, 69117 Heidelberg, Germany
3 Universitäts-Sternwarte München, Scheinerstraße 1, 81679 München, Germany
4 Astrophysikalisches Institut Potsdam, An der Sternwarte 16, 14482 Potsdam, Germany
5 Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, National Research Council of Canada, 5071 West Saanich Rd, Victoria, BC, V9E 2E7, Canada
6 Institut für Astronomie & Astrophysik, Universität Tübingen, Auf der Morgenstelle 10, 72076 Tübingen, Germany
Accepted: 9 April 2010
Context. The southern “infrared companion” of T Tau is known to show strong photometric variations of several magnitudes on timescales of years, as well as more modest 1 mag variations on timescales as short as one week. The physical mechanism driving these variations is debated, intrinsic luminosity variations due to a variable accretion rate were initially proposed, but later challenged in favor of apparent fluctuations due to time-variable foreground extinction.
Aims. We seek to investigate the nature of the observed photometric variability. Based on simple geometric arguments and basic physics laws, a minimum variability timescale can be derived for which variable extinction is a viable mechanism. Because this timescale increases rapidly with wavelength, observations at long wavelengths provide the strongest constraints.
Methods. We used VISIR at the VLT to image the T Tau system at two epochs in February 2008, separated by 3.94 days. In addition we compiled an extensive set of near- and mid-infrared photometric data from the literature, supplemented by a number of previously unpublished measurements, and constructed light curves for the various system components. We constructed a 2D radiative transfer model for the disk of T Tau Sa, consisting of a passively irradiated dusty outer part and a central, actively accreting component.
Results. Our VISIR data reveal a +26 ± 2% change in the T Tau S/T Tau N flux ratio at 12.8 μm within four days, which can be attributed to a brightening of T Tau Sa. Variable extinction can be excluded as a viable mechanism for the observed flux variation based on the short timescale and the long observing wavelength. We show that also the high long-term photometric variability and its associated color–magnitude behavior can be plausibly explained with variable accretion. However, variable extinction is also a viable mechanism for the long-term variability, and a combination of both mechanisms may be required to explain the collective photometric variability of Sa.
Conclusions. We conclude that the observed short-term variability is caused by a variable accretion luminosity in T Tau Sa, which leads to substantial fluctuations in the irradiation of the disk surface and thus induces rapid variations in the disk surface temperature and IR brightness. Both variable accretion and variable foreground extinction can plausibly explain the long-term color and brightness variations. We suggest that the periods of high and variable brightness of Sa that we witnessed in the early and late 1990s were due to enhanced accretion induced by the periastron passage of Sb, which gravitationally perturbed the Sa disk.
Key words: stars: individual: T Tau / stars: variables: T Tauri, Herbig Ae/Be / accretion, accretion disks / circumstellar matter / infrared: stars / stars: pre-main sequence
© ESO, 2010