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Most Massive Star Discovered: Over 300 Suns at Birth!

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

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

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Paul Eaton-Jones July 30, 2010, 4:45 AM

    As I said at the top of the page this is how virtually all science stories are reported by the non-specialist press [mainstream media if you will]. If your newspaper of choice has a science reporter/correspondent then you may get a slightly more detailed analysis, an explaination that the headline report is merly an overview and or even a pointer to the origianl paper. Most newspapers have a news reporter writing a piece for ALL their readers who, the writer, may not be particularly well read in science. One can virtually guarantee that 99% of the readers have little or no knowledge of stellar physics [in this case] but even if a few measly percent of the readers have their interest piqued and want to find out a bit more and get on the road to loving astronomy then it’s job done. Most readers will not have their lives blighted by what ‘we experts’ know to be either slightly misleading or confusing reportage. We should be bloody thankful that newspapers carry any stories and photographs about astronomy/particle physics and any other of the big sciences.

  • Salacious July 30, 2010, 5:05 AM

    @ Paul

    Eh? We are mostly talking about an ESO Press Release, which was used by the media to draw their bizarre conclusions. Obviously, the ESO PR was supported by the authors of the paper (they are actually quoted.)

    Frankly, “We should be bloody thankful that newspapers carry any stories and photographs about astronomy/particle physics and any other of the big sciences.” is useless IF THE INFORMATION IS NOT ACTUALLY CORRECT!!!

    Worst. How can we be sure that the media were not manipulated here? If we to follow your ideology, we have no means of making sure science does not abuse its position – and sadly feed the ill-informed, the radical skeptics and doubters of good science.

    Sorry, but your last statement here is quite irrelevant to the gist of the argument. I.e. The ESO release is the core fault of this unfortunate saga – and someone ought to take responsibility for it.

  • TerryG July 30, 2010, 6:15 AM

    Game, set and match to Professor Paul Crowther, University of Sheffield :-)

  • Don Alexander July 30, 2010, 8:09 AM

    HSBC, you may be overestimating the influence the authors had on the ESO press release. Admittedly, I have neither proof for or against that… But I’ve been part of a few press releases, and they aren’t written by the authors of the paper. They’re written by ESO or university staff, who usually have a lot more knowledge of science than your average newspaper reporter, but also, of course, want to sensationalize the results a bit. And I would not be astonished if the authors didn’t even have a final veto on the text.

    Furthermore, I don’t see how the information in the press release is “NOT ACTUALLY CORRECT” – at least in the sense of presenting false results. If someone comes along with a better stellar atmosphere model and shows that, using the same data Crowther et al. used, that R136a1 is actually only 140 solar masses… Then, yes, incorrect. But where is anything here being presented which is misleading to the public? Do they really care that other people suspected these stars to be huge years earlier?? Of course not. I can’t believe a single layman who might increase his interest in astronomy (or a young student who may be pushed toward studying astronomy) will throw down everything in disgust after finding out not everyone might have been cited correctly…

    It’s not like we are talking about pioneers of a field not getting the Nobel prize or so… ;)

  • Salacious July 30, 2010, 11:29 PM

    @ Don

    …the sense of presenting false results.

    Actually, I think you really mean “misleading” results.

    I’ve have never said Crowther et.al. paper made “false results” and to say so or infer so is quite disingenuous.

    Also Elson et.al. doesn’t say 150 Solar Masses, as that is quoted as Crowther et.al. ‘theoretical’ value they say “200±50 Solar Masses” I.e. Within the limit of Crowther et.al mass. The star exceeding 140M⊙ for R136a1 here has been stated by more than a dozen sources since Crowther’s et.al. 2010 paper – hence they are not the first

    As for the rest of the comment, well, you entitled to your opinion. The only comment I see is these errors are often cumulative, resulting with erroneous ideas being perpetuated. One that come to mind is that planetary nebulae are formed by ‘explosive’ nova-like phenomena when it is actually a superwind phenomena.

    The simple fact is that the claim of the discovery of the largest known star here, is therefore, incorrect.

    (Note I far from a ‘layman’ here.)

  • Salacious July 30, 2010, 11:49 PM

    @TerryG

    I didn’t realise we are playing tennis here!

    Even according to Paul Crowther here; “If still dubious about 250+ solar masses being common knowledge.

    The fact that this is “dubious” infers the statement of the most massive star known is not absolutely true. With great respect to Professor Crowther opinion here, and his great expertise regarding stellar evolution, I do think the investigation of previous claims of the most massive star deserve far more scrutiny. (It would certainly make a interesting paper in it’s own right – and would be great guidance for novices and professionals alike!)

    Again, my assertion is more to do with the nature of the press release and subsequent media reports.

  • Paul Eaton-Jones August 2, 2010, 1:02 AM

    Actually Salacious it’s your comment at the start of the replies to which I was responding – i.e. – “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.” ANY reporting of science that brings it to a wider audience and pricks somebody’s curiosity to dig deeper is to be welcomed. If the report contains inaccuracies that only the ‘experts’ can detect so what? Any intelligent person looking further into will soon discover inaccuracies and move on.
    As for my last comment being, ” quite irrelevant to the gist of the argument”, au contraire, it is particullarly germaine because, I say again, the original complaint was levelled at the ‘mainstream media’s’ report. How do you think the layman should find out stuff? Certainly not by coming here and asking a questions as all he will get is a series of abstruse, convoluted mathematical equations and techno-speak that are meaningless to all but three or four contributors. Showing off impresses no one and deters many.

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