Hubble Sees a Hypergiant Star Nearing Death

by Fraser Cain on January 12, 2007

VY Canis Majoris. Image credit: HubbleVY Canis Majoris, located about 5,000 light-years away, is no ordinary star; it’s a supergiant, containing 30 to 40 times the mass of our own Sun. And it’s so luminous it’s also considered a hypergiant, shining 500,000 times as bright as the Sun. And it’s big… really big. If this star lived in our Solar System, its surface would extend out to the orbit of Saturn.

Unfortunately, VY Canis Majoris is about to die. New images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the W.M. Keck Observatory show how vast eruptions on its surface have formed loops, arcs and knots of material spraying out into space.

Astronomers originally believed that supergiants lost their material in a simple and spherical way, but these images show that the process is anything but clean and tidy. Each loop and arc surrounding the star can be traced back to tremendous outbursts that occurred over the last 1,000 years. VY Canis Majoris is normally losing material all the time, but during these outbursts, the star loses 10 times as much mass as its regular rate.

The outbursts probably originated from massive spots on the star’s surface, similar to the magnetic field, flares and coronal mass ejections from the Sun, but on a vastly larger scale. VY Canis Majoris has enough of magnetic field to generate these massive outflows.

Original Source: Hubble News Release

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Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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