All stars form in giant molecular clouds of hydrogen. But some stars are extraordinarily massive; the most massive one we know of is about 200 times more massive than the Sun. How do these stars gain so much mass?
Part of the answer is that they form in multiple star systems.
The birth of a star is a spectacular event that plays out behind a veil of gas and dust. It’s a detailed process that takes millions of years to play out. Once a star leaves its protostar stage behind and begins its life of fusion, the star’s powerful radiative output blows the veil away.
But before then, astrophysicists are at a disadvantage.
Stars are born in molecular clouds, massive clouds of hydrogen that can contain millions of stellar masses of material. But how do molecular clouds form? There are different theories and models of that process, but the cloud formation is difficult to observe.
A new study is making some headway, and showing how the process occurs more rapidly than thought.
Meet R136a1, the most massive star known. Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, it’s a hulking behemoth weighing somewhere between 150 and 200 times the mass of the Sun. Understanding the upper limit of stars helps astronomers piece together everything from the life cycles of stars to the histories of galaxies.
Can planets form around massive, hot stars? Some astronomers think they can’t. According to the evidence, planets around stars exceeding three solar masses should be rare, or maybe even non-existent. But now astronomers have found one.
A team of researchers found a binary star that’s six times the mass of the Sun. And it hosts a planet that’s about ten times more massive than Jupiter.
A new study shows how massive young stars create the kind of organic molecules that are necessary for life.
A team of researchers used an airborne observatory to examine the inner regions around two massive young stars. Along with water, they found things like ammonia and methane. These molecules are swirling around in a disk of material that surrounds the young stars.
That material is the same stuff that planets form from, and the study presents some new insights into how the stuff of life becomes incorporated into planets.
Neutron stars are the end-state of massive stars that have spent their fuel and exploded as supernovae. There’s an upper limit to their mass, because a massive enough star won’t become a neutron star; it’ll become a black hole. But finding that upper mass limit, or tipping point, between a star that becomes a black hole and one that becomes a neutron star, is something astronomers are still working on.
Now a new discovery from astronomers using the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Green Bank Telescope (GBT) have found the most massive neutron star yet, putting some solid data in place about the so-called tipping point.
A recent analysis of a star in the south hemisphere constellation of Centaurus has highlighted the role that amateurs play in assisting with professional discoveries in astronomy.
The find used of the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope based in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile — as well as data from observatories around the world — to reveal the nature of a massive yellow “hypergiant” star as one of the largest stars known.
The stats for the star are impressive indeed: dubbed HR 5171 A, the binary system weighs in at a combined 39 solar masses, has a radius of over 1,300 times that of our Sun, and is a million times as luminous. Located 3,600 parsecs or over 11,700 light years distant, the star is 50% larger than the famous red giant Betelgeuse. Plop HR 5171 A down into the center of our own solar system, and it would extend out over 6 astronomical units (A.U.s) past the orbit of Jupiter.
Researchers used observations going back over 60 years – some of which were collected by dedicated amateur astronomers – to pin down the nature of this curious star. A variable star just below naked eye visibility spanning a magnitude range from +6.1 to +7.3, HR 5171 A also has a relatively small companion star orbiting across our line of sight once every 1300 days. Such a system is known as an eclipsing binary. Famous examples of similar systems are the star Algol (Alpha Persei), Epsilon Aurigae and Beta Lyrae. The companion star for HR 5171 is also a large star in its own right at around six solar masses and 400 solar radii in size. The distance from center-to-center for the system is about 10 A.U.s – the distance from Sol to Saturn – and the surface-to-surface distance for the A and B components of the system are “only” about 2.8 A.U.s apart. This all means that these two massive stars are in physical contact, with the expanded outer atmosphere of the bloated primary contacting the secondary, giving the pair a distorted peanut shape.
“The companion we have found is very significant as it can have an influence on the fate of HR 5171 A, for example stripping off its outer layers and modifying its evolution,” said astronomer Olivier Chesneau of the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in Nice France in the recent press release.
Knowing the orbital period of a secondary star offers a method to measure the mass of the primary using good old Newtonian mechanics. Coupled with astrometry used to measure its tiny parallax, this allows astronomers to pin down HR 5171 A’s stupendous size and distance.
Along with luminous blue variables, yellow hypergiants are some of the brightest stars known, with an absolute magnitude of around -9. That’s just 16x times fainter than the apparent visual magnitude of a Full Moon but over 100 times brighter than Venus – if you placed a star like HR 5171 A 32 light years from the Earth, it would easily cast a shadow.
Astronomers used a technique known as interferormetry to study HR 5171 A, which involves linking up several telescopes to create the resolving power of one huge telescope. Researchers also culled through over a decade’s worth data to analyze the star. Though much of what had been collected by the American Association of Variable Star Observers (the AAVSO) had been considered to be too noisy for the purposes of this study, a dataset built from 2000 to 2013 by amateur astronomer Sebastian Otero was of excellent quality and provided a good verification for the VLT data.
The discovery is also crucial as researchers have come to realize that we’re catching HR 5171 A at an exceptional phase in its life. The star has been getting larger and cooling as it grows, and this change can be seen just over the past 40 year span of observations, a rarity in stellar astronomy.
“It’s not a surprise that yellow hypergiants are very instable and lose a lot of mass,” Chesneau told Universe Today. “But the discovery of a companion around such a bright star was a big surprise since any ‘normal’ star should at least be 10,000 times fainter than the hypergiant. Moreover, the hypergiant was much bigger than expected. What we see is not the companion itself, but the regions gravitationally controlled and filled by the wind from the hypergiant. This is a perfect example of the so-called Roche model. This is the first time that such a useful and important model has really been imaged. This hypergiant exemplifies a famous concept!”
Indeed, you can see just such photometric variations as the secondary orbits its host in the VLTI data collected by the AMBER interferometer, backed up by observations from GEMINI’s NICI chronograph:
These latest measurements place HR 5171 A firmly in the “Top 10” for largest stars in terms of size known, as well as the largest yellow hypergiant star known This is due mainly to tidal interactions with its companion. Only eight yellow hypergiants have been identified in our Milky Way galaxy. HR 5171 A is also in a crucial transition phase from a red hypergiant to becoming a luminous blue variable or perhaps even a Wolf-Rayet type star, and will eventually end its life as a supernova.
HR 5171 A is also known as HD 119796, HIP 67261, and V766 Centauri. Located at Right Ascension 13 Hours 47’ 11” and declination -62 degrees 35’ 23,” HR 5171 culminates just two degrees above the southern horizon at local midnight as seen from Miami in late March.
HR 5171 A is a fine binocular object for southern hemisphere observers.
But the good news is, there’s another yellow hypergiant visible for northern hemisphere observers named Rho Cassiopeiae:
Rho Cass is one of the few naked eye examples of a yellow hypergiant star, and varies from magnitude +4.1 to +6.2 over an irregular period.
It’s amusing read the Burnham’s Celestial Handbook entry on Rho Cass. He notes the lack of parallax and the spectral measurements of the day — the early 1960s — as eluding to a massive star with a “true distance… close to 3,000 light years!” Today we know that Rho Cassiopeiae actually lies farther still, at over 8,000 light years distant. Robert Burnham would’ve been impressed even more by the amazing nature of HR 5171 as revealed today by ESO astronomers!
Score another one for citizen science! In a study released just days ago, a new catalog containing over five thousand infrared bubble entries was added through the “Milky Way Project” website. The work was done independently by at least five participants who measured parameters for position, radius, thickness, eccentricity and position angle. Not only did their work focus on these areas, but the non-professionals were responsible for recovering the locations of at least 86% of additional bubble and HII catalogs. Cool stuff? You bet. Almost one third of the Milky Way Project’s studied bubbles are located at the edge of an even larger bubble – or have more lodged inside. This opens the door to further understanding the dynamics of triggered star formation!
Just what is the Milky Way Project? Thanks to the Galaxy Zoo and Zooniverse, scientists have been able to enlist the help of an extensive community of volunteers able to tackle and analyze huge amounts of data – data that contains information which computer algorithms might miss. In this case it’s visually searching through the Galactic plane for whole or broken ring-shaped structures in images done by Spitzer’s Galactic Legacy Infrared Survey Extraordinaire (GLIMPSE) project. Here the bubbles overlap and the structures are so complex that only humans can sort them out for now.
“The MWP is the ninth online citizen science project created using the Zooniverse Application Programming Interface
(API) tool set. The Zooniverse API is the core software supporting the activities of all Zooniverse citizen science projects.” says R. J. Simpson (et al). “Built originally for Galaxy Zoo 2, the software is now being used by 11 different projects. The Zooniverse API is designed primarily as a tool for serving up a large collection of `assets’ (for example, images or video) to an interface, and collecting back user-generated interactions with these assets.”
Through the interface, users mark the location of bubbles and other areas of significance such as small bubbles, green knots, dark nebulae, star clusters, galaxies, fuzzy red objects or simply unknowns. During this phase, the citizen scientist can make as many annotations as he or she wants before they submit their findings and receive a new assignment. Each annotated image is then stored in a database as a classification and the user can access their image again in an area of the website known as “My Galaxy”. However, images may only be classified once.
When identifying galactic bubbles, the user creates a circle around the area which can be scaled to size and stretched into an elliptical configuration. Initially as the object is identified and marked, the user can control the position and size of the bubble. Once annotated the parameters can be edited, such as the ellipticity, annular thickness and rotation. The program even allows for regions where no obvious emission is present, such as a broken or partial bubble. This allows the user to match the bubbles they find in individual images to achieve an accurate representation You can even mark a favorite or interesting configuration as well!
“In order to assist in the data-reduction process, users are given scores according to how experienced they are at drawing bubbles. We treat the first 10 bubbles a user draws as practice drawings and these are not included in the final reduction. Users begin with a score of 0 and are given scores according to the number of precision bubbles they have drawn.” explains the team. “Precision bubbles are those drawn using the full tool set, meaning they have to have adjusted the ellipticity, the thickness and the rotation. This is done to ensure that users’ scores reflect their ability to draw bubbles well. While only precision bubbles are used to score volunteers, all bubbles drawn as included in the data reduction. The scores are used as weights when averaging the bubble drawings to produce the catalogue.”
Now it’s time to combine all that data. As of October of last year, the program has created a database of 520,120 user-drawn bubbles. The information is then sorted out and processed – with many inclusions left for further investigation. However, not all bubbles make the cut. When it comes to this project, only bubbles that have been identified fifty times or more are included into the catalog. What remains is a “clean bubble” – one that has been verified by at least five users and picked out at least 10% of the time by the volunteers when displayed.
“It is not known how many bubbles exist in the Galaxy, hence it is impossible to quantify the completeness of the MWP catalogue. There will be bubbles that are either not visible in the data used on the MWP, or that are not seen as bubbles.” says the team. “Distant bubbles may be obscured by foreground extinction. Faint bubbles may be masked by bright Galactic background emission or confused with brighter nebular structures. Fragmented or highly distorted bubbles present at high inclination angles may not appear as bubbles to the observer.”
But don’t let it burst your bubble. This citizen science approach is an excellent idea from the the standpoint of observer objectivity and the final, reduced catalogue contains 5,106 visually identified bubbles. Of these, they are divided into a catalogue of 3,744 large bubbles identified by users as ellipses, and a catalogue of 1,362 small bubbles annotated by users at the highest zoom level images in the MWP.
And that’s not all… “In addition to the reduced bubble catalogue, a crowd sourced `heat map’ of bubble drawings has also been produced. The MWP `heat maps’ allow the bubble drawings to be explored without them needing to be reduced to elliptical annuli. Rather, the `heat maps’ allow contours of overlapping classifications to be drawn over regions of the Galactic plane reflecting levels of agreement between independent classifiers. In most cases the structures outlined in these maps are photo-dissociation regions traced by 8 um emission, but more fundamentally they are regions that multiple volunteers agree reflect the rims of bubbles.”
Yep. They are bubbles alright. Bubble produced around huge stars when an HII region is hollowed out by thermal overpressure, stellar winds, radiation pressure or a combination of them all. This impacts the surrounding, cold interstellar medium and creates a visible shell – or bubble. These regions serve as perfect observation points “to test theories of sequential, massive star formation triggered by massive star winds and radiation pressure” and to keep us forever fascinated…