"Astronomers are left in the dark, and for once, we do not enjoy it," says Christine Nicholls from Mount Stromlo Observatory, Australia, lead author of a paper reporting the study. "We have obtained the most comprehensive set of observations to date for this class of Sun-like stars, and they clearly show that all the possible explanations for their unusual behaviour just fail." The mystery investigated by the team dates back to the 1930s and affects about a third of Sun-like stars in our Milky Way and other galaxies. All stars with masses similar to our Sun become,
towards the end of their lives, red, cool and extremely large, just before retiring as white dwarfs. Also known as red giants, these elderly stars exhibit very strong periodic variations in their luminosity over timescales up to a couple of years.
"Such variations are thought to be caused by what we call 'stellar pulsations'," says Nicholls. "Roughly speaking, the giant star swells and shrinks, becoming brighter and dimmer in a regular pattern. However, one third of these stars show an unexplained additional periodic variation, on even longer timescales — up to five years."
In order to find out the origin of this secondary feature, the astronomers monitored 58 stars in our galactic neighbour, the Large Magellanic Cloud, over two and a half years. They acquired spectra using the high resolution FLAMES/GIRAFFE spectrograph on ESO's Very Large Telescope and combined them with images from other telescopesachieving an impressive collection of the properties of these variable stars.