IRC +10420 is one of the extreme hypergiant stars that define the empirical upper luminosity boundary in the H-R diagram. During their post-red supergiant evolution, these massive stars enter a temperature range (6000-9000 K) of increased dynamical instability, high mass loss, and increasing opacity, a semiforbidden region that de Jager and his collaborators have called the "yellow void." We report HST/STIS spatially resolved spectroscopy of IRC +10420 and its reflection nebula with some surprising results. Long-slit spectroscopy of the reflected spectrum allows us to effectively view the star from different directions. Measurements of the double-peaked Hα emission profile show a uniform outflow of gas in a nearly spherical distribution, contrary to previous models with an equatorial disk or bipolar outflow. Based on the temperature and massloss rate estimates that are usually quoted for this object, the wind is optically thick to the continuum at some and possibly all wavelengths. Consequently, the observed variations in apparent spectral type and inferred temperature are changes in the wind and do not necessarily mean that the underlying stellar radius and interior structure are evolving on such a short timescale. To explain the evidence for simultaneous outflow and infall of material near the star, we propose a "rain" model, in which blobs of gas condense in regions of lowered opacity outside the dense wind. With the apparent warming of its wind, the recent appearance of strong emission, and a decline in the mass-loss rate, IRC +10420 may be about to shed its opaque wind, cross the yellow void, and emerge as a hotter star.
- Stars: atmospheres
- Stars: evolution
- Stars: individual (IRC +10420)