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Credit: NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)

Credit: NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)

What caused this outburst of V838 Mon? For reasons unknown, star V838 Mon’s outer surface suddenly greatly expanded with the result that it became the brightest star in the entire Milky Way Galaxy in January 2002. Then, just as suddenly, it faded. A stellar flash like this has never been seen before — supernovas and novas expel matter out into space. Although the V838 Mon flash appears to expel material into space, what is seen in the above image from the Hubble Space Telescope is actually an outwardly moving light echo of the bright flash. In a light echo, light from the flash is reflected by successively more distant rings in the complex array of ambient interstellar dust that already surrounded the star. V838 Mon lies about 20,000 light years away toward the constellation of the unicorn (Monoceros), while the light echo above spans about six light years in diameter.

May 20, 2002 - Credit: NASA, ESA and H.E. Bond (STScI)

May 20, 2002 - Credit: NASA, ESA and H.E. Bond (STScI)

September 2, 2002 - Credit: NASA, ESA and H.E. Bond (STScI)

September 2, 2002 - Credit: NASA, ESA and H.E. Bond (STScI)

October 28, 2002  - Credit: NASA, ESA and H.E. Bond (STScI)

October 28, 2002 - Credit: NASA, ESA and H.E. Bond (STScI)

December 17, 2002 - Credit: NASA, ESA and H.E. Bond (STScI)

December 17, 2002 - Credit: NASA, ESA and H.E. Bond (STScI)

October 2004 - Credit: NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)

October 2004 - Credit: NASA and the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)

November 2005 - Credit: NASA, ESA, and H. Bond (STScI)

November 2005 - Credit: NASA, ESA, and H. Bond (STScI)

September 2006 - Light from a star that erupted nearly five years ago continues to move outward through a cloud of dust surrounding the star. The light reflects or echoes off the normally dark dust, making it visible.  Credit: NASA, ESA, and H. Bond (STScI)

September 2006 - Light from a star that erupted nearly five years ago continues to move outward through a cloud of dust surrounding the star. The light reflects or "echoes" off the normally dark dust, making it visible. Credit: NASA, ESA, and H. Bond (STScI)

Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)

Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)

Credit: NASA, ESA, and H. Bond (STScI)

Credit: NASA, ESA, and H. Bond (STScI)