Context. Many protoplanetary nebulae show strong asymmetries in their surrounding shells, pointing to asymmetries during the mass loss phase. Questions concerning the origin and the onset of deviations from spherical symmetry are important for our understanding of the evolution of these objects. Here we focus on the circumstellar shell of the post-AGB star HD 161796.
Aims: We aim to detect signatures of an aspherical outflow, and to derive its properties.
Methods: We used the imaging polarimeter the Extreme Polarimeter (ExPo), a visitor instrument at the William Herschel Telescope, to accurately image the dust shell surrounding HD 161796 in various wavelength filters. Imaging polarimetry allows us to separate the faint, polarized, light that comes from circumstellar material from the bright, unpolarized, light from the central star.
Results: The shell around HD 161796 is highly aspherical. A clear signature of an equatorial density enhancement can be seen. This structure is optically thick at short wavelengths and changes its appearance to optically thin at longer wavelengths. In the classification of the two different appearances of planetary nebulae from HST images it changes from being classified as DUst-Prominent Longitudinally-EXtended (DUPLEX) at short wavelengths to star-obvious low-level-elongated (SOLE) at longer wavelengths. This strengthens the interpretation that these two appearances are manifestations of the same physical structure. Furthermore, we find that the central star is hotter than often assumed and the relatively high observed reddening is a consequence of circumstellar rather than interstellar extinction.