Mass loss of stars on the asymptotic giant branch: Mechanisms, models and measurements
As low- and intermediate-mass stars reach the asymptotic giant branch (AGB), they have developed into intriguing and complex objects that are major players in the cosmic gas/dust cycle. At this stage, their appearance and evolution are strongly affected by a range of dynamical processes. Large-scale convective flows bring newly-formed chemical elements to the stellar surface and, together with pulsations, they trigger shock waves in the extended stellar atmosphere. There, massive outflows of gas and dust have their origin, which enrich the interstellar medium and, eventually, lead to a transformation of the cool luminous giants into white dwarfs. Dust grains forming in the upper atmospheric layers play a critical role in the wind acceleration process, by scattering and absorbing stellar photons and transferring their outward-directed momentum to the surrounding gas through collisions. Recent progress in high-angular-resolution instrumentation, from the visual to the radio regime, is leading to valuable new insights into the complex dynamical atmospheres of AGB stars and their wind-forming regions. Observations are revealing asymmetries and inhomogeneities in the photospheric and dust-forming layers which vary on time-scales of months, as well as more long-lived large-scale structures in the circumstellar envelopes. High-angular-resolution observations indicate at what distances from the stars dust condensation occurs, and they give information on the chemical composition and sizes of dust grains in the close vicinity of cool giants. These are essential constraints for building realistic models of wind acceleration and developing a predictive theory of mass loss for AGB stars, which is a crucial ingredient of stellar and galactic chemical evolution models. At present, it is still not fully possible to model all these phenomena from first principles, and to predict the mass-loss rate based on fundamental stellar parameters only. However, much progress has been made in recent years, which is described in this review. We complement this by discussing how observations of emission from circumstellar molecules and dust can be used to estimate the characteristics of the mass loss along the AGB, and in different environments. We also briefly touch upon the issue of binarity.
Stars: AGB and post-AGB
Stars: mass loss