Water vapour masers in long-period variable stars: II. The semi-regular variables R Crt and RT Vir
Journal article, 2020
Context. Water masers emitting at a radiofrequency of 22 GHz are often found in the circumstellar envelopes of evolved stars. We monitored the H2O maser emission of a larger sample of evolved stars of different types to study the maser properties as a function of stellar type. Aims. We wish to understand the origin and evolution of the H2O masers in circumstellar envelopes. In this paper, we take a closer look at R Crt and RT Vir, two nearby (<250 pc) semi-regular variable stars. The findings complement our monitoring results for RX Boo and SV Peg, two other semi-regular variable stars that we have discussed in a previous paper. Methods. Within the framework of the Medicina/Effelsberg H2O maser monitoring programme, we observed the maser emission of R Crt and RT Vir for more than two decades with single-dish telescopes. To get insights into the distribution of maser spots in the circumstellar envelopes at different times, to get an idea of their longevity, and, where possible, to be able to link the phenomena seen in our observations to maser locations within the envelopes, we collected interferometric data for these stars, taken within the same period, from the literature. Results. The H2O masers in R Crt and RT Vir exhibit brightness variations on a variety of timescales. We confirm short-time variations of individual features on timescales of months to up to 1.5 yr, as seen by previous monitoring programmes. Also decade-long variations of the general brightness level, independent from individual features, were seen in both stars. These long-term variations are attributed to brightness variations occurring independently from each other in selected velocity ranges and they are independent of the optical light curve of the stars. Expected drifts in velocity of individual features are usually masked by the blending of other features with similar velocities. However, in RT Vir, we found the exceptional case of a single feature with a constant velocity over 7.5 yr (<0.06 km s-1 yr-1). Conclusions. We attribute the long-term brightness variations to the presence of regions with higher-than-average density in the stellar wind and hosting several clouds which emit maser radiation on short timescales. These regions typically need ~20 yr to cross the H2O maser shell, where the right conditions for exciting H2O masers are present. Different clouds contained in such a region all move within a narrow range of velocities, and so does their maser emission. This sometimes gives the impression of longer-living features in single-dish spectra, in spite of the short lifetimes of the individual components that lie at their origin, thus, naturally explaining the longer timescales observed. The constant velocity feature (11 km s-1) is likely to come from a single maser cloud, which moved through about half of RT Vir's H2O maser shell without changing its velocity. From this, we infer that its path was located in the outer part of the H2O maser shell, where RT Vir's stellar wind has, apparently, already reached its terminal outflow velocity. This conclusion is independently corroborated by the observation that the highest H2O maser outflow velocity in RT Vir approaches the terminal outflow velocity, as given by OH and CO observations. This is generally not observed in other semi-regular variable stars. All four stars in our study are of optical variability type SRb, indicating the absence of periodic large-amplitude variations. Therefore, any likely responses of the maser brightness to variations of the optical emission are masked by the strong short-term maser fluctuations.
Stars: AGB and post-AGB