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Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society


We present optical spectroscopy and photometry and IUE spectroscopy of the counterpart of the extremely powerful LMC recurrent X-ray transient A0538 – 66. During one 16.6 day outburst cycle at the end of 1980 December the optical spectra show steadily increasing Balmer and He I emission (indicative of an expanding envelope) superposed on a B2 III–IV spectrum. There is a substantial optical brightness increase of 2 mag at the peak, accompanied by the sudden turn-on of He IIλ 4686. These and other optical spectra show significant radial velocity changes but we can find no clear correlation with the 16.6 day cycle. Further optical and IUE spectra were obtained at the peak of subsequent outbursts, and these show very strong and broad (∼ 5000 km s−1) emission lines. We interpret the system as a ∼ 1 M compact object in a highly eccentric (e ∼ 0.7) orbit about the ∼ 12 M B star with a binary period equal to the flare period. Continuum measurements indicate that the emitting region at outburst is several times the size of the B star thus implying that at periastron passage the envelope of the primary is tidally expanded by the neutron star. Although this is now the best example of a growing group of recurrent X-ray transients, A0538 – 66 is unique in its optical behaviour and peak Lx when compared with other galactic X-ray transients and shell/Be stars.