Zooming in on a giant: the Tarantula Nebula in the visible light on the left, a zoomed-in image of the location of R 136 in the center panel, and the R 136 cluster in the lower right of the last panel. Image Credit:ESO/P. Crowther/C.J. Evans

Most Massive Star Discovered: Over 300 Suns at Birth!

22 Jul , 2010 by

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Often, writing about astronomy tends to mirror the job of those writing for the Guinness Book of World Records – just when you think a record is practically unbeatable, somebody else appears to show up the previous record-holder. This is surely the case with the stellar heavyweight (er, “heavymass”) R 136a1, which has been shown by data taken using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope to tip the stellar scales at 265 times the mass of our Sun. What’s even more impressive is that R 136a1 has lost mass over the course of its lifetime, and likely was about 320 solar masses at birth. That deserves a “Yikes!”

R 136a1 lies in a cluster of young, massive stars with hot surface temperatures that is located inside the Tarantula Nebula. The Tarantula Nebula is nested inside the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the Milky Way’s closest galactic neighbors, 165,000 light-years away. The cluster is called RMC 136a (or more commonly referred to as R136), and in addition to the whopper that is R 136a1, there are three other stars with masses at birth in the 150 solar mass range.

Extremely massive stars like R 136a1 were previously thought to be unable to form, posing a challenge to stellar physicists as to just how this behemoth came about. It’s possible that it formed by itself in the relatively dense gas and dust of the R136 cluster, or that multiple smaller stars merged to create the larger star at some point early on in its lifetime.

If breaking the mass record weren’t enough, R136a1 also happens to be the most luminous star ever discovered, with an output of energy that is over 10 million times that of the Sun. If you want to learn more about how astronomers determine the mass and luminosity of stars, here is an excellent and thorough introduction to the subject.

To validate the models used in determining the mass and luminosity of the stars in R136, the team of astronomers led by Paul Crowther, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Sheffield, used the VLT to examine NGC 3603, a closer stellar nursery. NGC 3603 is only 22,000 light years away, and two of the stars in that cluster are in a binary system, which allowed the team to measure their masses.

A comparison of the smallest stars (red dwarfs), Sun-like stars, blue dwarfs, and the most massive star ever discovered, R 136a1. Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

We are lucky to have observed this extremely massive star, as the rule for the most massive stars is, “Live fast, die young.” The more massive a star is, the faster it churns through the fuel that powers its increased luminosity. Our Sun, which has a medium amount of mass in relation to the two extremes, will last for around for about 10 billion years. Smaller, red dwarf stars can last trillions of years, while large stars on the scale of R 136a1 only glimmer in all of their brilliance for millions of years.

What will happen to R 136a1 at the end of its life? Stars with a mass of over 150 Suns ultimately explode in a light show of staggering proportions generated by what’s called a pair-instability supernova. For more on this phenomenon, check out this article from Universe Today from last year.

Source: ESO press release

A nod and a snarky wink to Genevieve Valentine



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The Eclectic Exterminator of Stupid Electricians
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The Eclectic Exterminator of Stupid Electricians
July 22, 2010 8:52 AM
This story is an absolute crock, which the blithering media has literally blown out of proportion – especially in light of the con job by the UK astronomy. The high mass of these and the star in question have been known for ages. As far as we know, the masses of stars can only be directly made by binary systems. According to the arXiv article “”, this actually was derived by ” Comparisons with stellar models calculated for the main-sequence evolution” Stellar models!!!!, and not evidenced by any direct means. So according to “contemporary stellar & photometric results” Bingo. We have the massive star known. So we now have the worldwide media now claiming this is some brand… Read more »
The Eclectic Exterminator of Stupid Electricians
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The Eclectic Exterminator of Stupid Electricians
July 22, 2010 9:08 AM

Actually, this is UK article is really boarding on plagiarism.

In the published paper by Elson, R.A.W., et.al. in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1992 (MNRAS., 258, 103-106 (1992)) entitled The Massive Stars in the R136 region of 30 Doradus it says in the Introduction (pg.103) that;

Once thought to be a single star with ~2000 [Solar Masses], it has been more recently been resolved into eight components, and the upper mass limit revised to ~250 M [Solar Masses] (Weigelt et al 1991, Weigelt & Baier 1985; Walborn 1986)

So this story ain’t “new”? Sorry much of the work that was done twenty-five years ago is saying the same thing!!

The Eclectic Exterminator of Stupid Electricians
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The Eclectic Exterminator of Stupid Electricians
July 22, 2010 9:16 AM

Evidence of the media beat-up can be found almost everywhere. However, the critical on is in the UK Guardian by Ian Sample “Giant star takes scientists by surprise”.

This now global viral story has the same paraphrased line “…discovery has astonished scientists who thought it was impossible for stars to exceed more than 150 times the mass of the sun.” actually is not true!

The only real surprise is that it took the truly gullible media twenty-five odd years to find out!

IMO, Professor Crowther has a lot to answer to!

Bill
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Bill
July 22, 2010 11:19 AM
I thought that there WAS a physical limit on star size? to get a giganto-star, you need a huge stellar cloud to form it out of, but in the process of formation, if it is too big, won’t the radiation pressure and winds blow much of the cloud away before it is in incorporated into the growing star? Or is this just an idea that someone had to explain why there seems to be a limit on star size, but it hasn’t been proven/demonstrated/whatever? Also, that picture; that can’t be to scale, can it? I mean, if r136a1 is blue, it hasn’t gone giant (in terms of expanding and cooling) yet. And if it hasn’t gone giant yet,… Read more »
Excalibur
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Excalibur
July 22, 2010 12:22 PM
The Eddington limit, or more generally the hydrodynamic balance of the star is very much dependant on the total mass, and stars above that mass will slowly or quickly radiate themselves away. But it is possible that stars can form being above the Eddington limit, and then spend their lifetime with a large stellar wind. Why stars are believed to do this trick has alot to do with accretion disks, polar jets and magnetic funneling, but generally they fit the profile of LBV-stars.. Stars that big (above about 50Msun) do not follow the evolutionary tracks of smaller stars, they stay blue and giant throughout their lifetime. Relating masses in the way described works (as a general method) if… Read more »
Trippy
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Trippy
July 22, 2010 1:19 PM

“What will happen to R 136a1 at the end of its life? Stars with a mass of over 150 million Suns ultimately explode in a light show of staggering proportions generated by what’s called a pair-instability supernova.”

Presumably you actually mean 150 suns, not 150 million suns?

Kevin
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Kevin
July 22, 2010 2:19 PM

Absolutely blown out of proportion (pardon the expression). The way the media’s going on about it it’s like the star has taken a bearing on our solar system.

Aqua4U
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July 22, 2010 5:46 PM

Here’s Crowther’s (et al) paper: http://www.eso.org/public/archives/releases/sciencepapers/eso1030/eso1030.pdf

Good catch @Trippy!

Maddad
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July 23, 2010 2:38 AM

While a binary mass will give the best mass measurement, it is not the only way to obtain an estimate. The color of the star also will be an indicator.

SteveZodiac
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SteveZodiac
July 23, 2010 12:11 AM

I was reading the Wikipaedia entry on VY Canis Majoris and it said it was the next biggest star after R136a1, then whoosh! the entry was edited out. Looks like we are in for an academic cat-fight over this one. I’d prefer to see some energy devoted to working out how these >150MSun stars get started.

Paul Eaton-Jones
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July 23, 2010 12:23 AM

I’m surprised at HSBC’s [over] reaction to this report. He appears never to have read a scientific article in a mainstream newspaper. This is how they attempt to get the general population intersted in science. Dearie, dearie me. If he’s that incensed perhaps he should contact the original authors and persuade them to sue the Sheffiled team for plagarism [his word not mine]. Let’s see how far they get.

Brian Sheen
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July 23, 2010 1:22 AM
The ESO PR has been reported all over and some has reached the popular press even. In the UK we will all remember Maggie’s dynamic exposition long after we have forgotten what she was on about. That of course is the point, Jo Public would not read the original paper but needs to be aware that his money is being spent on something big. It is true that many discoveries are discovered several times but in the ESO PR they credit the HST archival material, (ie pre existing). A problem that writing for UT is that many of its readers are very experienced while other are new comers to the sport. It would help us all if the… Read more »
M. Malenfant
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M. Malenfant
July 23, 2010 1:49 AM
Every few years such a story about some new most massive or most luminous star pops up, which turnes out soon after as exaggerated and the respective star becomes demoted to more normal proportions afterwards. HD93129a, Pistol Star, LBV 1806-20, then again / repeatedly Eta-Car, the Peony Nebula Star – and now R136a1 (again). Sometime it appears, each astronomer pushes his own favorite with much marketing. The masses are estimates based on models, which are prone to some errors: especially for those of these stars only visible in infrared it seems the models have been corrected for lower temperatures yielding much lower masses / luminosities. In several other cases of seemingly excessive mass the star turned out to… Read more »
Paul Eaton-Jones
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July 23, 2010 2:37 AM

Strange how everybody and his dog cravenly believe the word of climate modellers but stellar modellers are villified. I wonder why??

Lawrence B. Crowell
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Lawrence B. Crowell
July 23, 2010 3:30 AM

This is a measurement of a higher mass than previously reported. I don’t think this is quite so much an egregious case of plagerism.

There is an upper limit on stellar mass in a stable configuration. A star above the Eddington mass limit will be very energetic and eject mass by radiation pressure until it mass is reduced to below 150 solar masses.

LC

Bill
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Bill
July 23, 2010 3:52 AM

@Paul

I would imagine it is because not all models are created equal.

It can be very difficult to gather data on a star that is x lightyears away, and as a result, models are based on only a few variables (temperature, mass, composition, age).

On the other hand, it relatively much easier to get climate data, allowing for a more diverse and inclusive data set and more complete models.

Aodhhan
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Aodhhan
July 23, 2010 7:22 AM
LBC…. Thank you once again for displaying your total ignorance and never ending pessimism without facts. Your references are old, and do not precisely match the subject. There isn’t any plagarism going on, obviously because this is a new discovery. Before you go lashing out at someone elses research… instead of coming up with old and offset material, try doing your own research for a change. Seriously… if you are so intelligent and knowledgeable, why don’t we see any of your research? Where is the data you have come up with? Where is the data you have which opposes this finding? Don’t have any??? Then shaddup!! As far as the mass, while they cannot get an exact measurement,… Read more »
Jon Hanford
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Jon Hanford
July 23, 2010 9:10 AM

“Aodhhan Says:
July 23rd, 2010 at 7:22 am

LBC….
Thank you once again for displaying your total ignorance and never ending pessimism without facts. Your references are old, and do not precisely match the subject……….”

I would have thought that by now Aodhhan would have reread his post and:

A) Apologize to LC

B) Post a correction

That he has done neither speaks volumes!

“The stupid, it burns”
(we need a graphic here. IVAN3MAN? Dr Flimmer?)

Aodhhan
Member
Aodhhan
July 23, 2010 9:49 AM
Absolutely not. Anyone who publicly admonishes someone elses research without fact or proof deserves it back many times over. LBC is obviously no expert, and attempts to use his own uneducated logic to determine how things in the Universe should be. Most of the time he misunderstands the research of others which makes it almost hilarious, except for the fact he demeans the work of real experts who have spent numerous hours in their attempt to increase mans knowledge. I will not (neither should anyone else) put up with this sort of nonsense. His rants only mislead and confuse others who come hear to learn something. Perhaps I have been a bit harsh in my words for this… Read more »
Meate
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Meate
July 23, 2010 10:25 AM

Aodhhan, unless my eyes are playing tricks on me, LBC didn’t post anything of what you accused him of posting. He cited no references, stated that this wasn’t a flagrant case of plagerism, and didn’t lash out at someone elses research.

I’m with Jon on this one: you really should go back and read what LBC posted. I think you’ll find that his single four sentence post in these comments was really quite harmless.

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