Why Do Red Giants Expand?

We know that the Sun will last another 5 billion years and then expand us a red giant. What will actually make this process happen?

One of the handy things about the Universe, apart from the fact that it exists, is that it lets us see crazy different configurations of everything, including planets, stars and galaxies.

We see stars like our Sun and dramatically unlike our Sun. Tiny, cool red dwarf stars with a fraction of the mass of our own, sipping away at their hydrogen juice boxes for billions and even trillions of years. Stars with way more mass than our own, blasting out enormous amounts of radiation, only lasting a few million years before they detonate as supernovae.

There are ones younger than the Sun; just now clearing out the gas and dust in their solar nebula with intense ultraviolet radiation. Stars much older than ours, bloated up into enormous sizes, nearing the end of their lives before they fade into their golden years as white dwarfs.

The Sun is a main sequence star, converting hydrogen into helium at its core, like it’s been doing for more than 4.5 billion years, and will continue to do so for another 5 or so. At the end of its life, it’s going to bloat up as a red giant, so large that it consumes Mercury and Venus, and maybe even Earth.

What’s the process going on inside the Sun that makes this happen? Let’s peel away the Sun and take a look at the core. After we’re done screaming about the burning burning hands, we’ll see that the Sun is this enormous sphere of hydrogen and helium, 1.4 million kilometers across, the actual business of fusion is happening down in the core, a region that’s a delicious bubblegum center a tiny 280,000 kilometers across.

The core is less than one percent of the entire volume, but because the density of hydrogen in the chewy center is 150 times more than liquid water, it accounts for a freakishly huge 35% of its mass.

It’s thanks to the mass of the entire star, 2 x 10^30 kg, bearing down on the core thanks to gravity. Down here in the core, temperatures are more than 15 million degrees Celsius. It’s the perfect spot for nuclear fusion picnic.

There are a few paths fusion can take, but the main one is where hydrogen atoms are mushed into helium. This process releases enough gamma radiation to make you a planet full of Hulks.

Proton-proton fusion in a sun-like star. Credit: Borb
Proton-proton fusion in a sun-like star. Credit: Borb

While the Sun has been performing hydrogen fusion, all this helium has been piling up at its core, like nuclear waste. Terrifyingly, it’s still fuel, but our little Sun just doesn’t have the temperature or pressure at its core to be able to use it.

Eventually, the fusion at the core of the Sun shuts down, choked off by all this helium and in a last gasp of high pitched mickey mouse voice terror the helium core begins to contract and heat up. At this point, an amazing thing happens. It’s now hot enough for a layer of hydrogen just around the core to heat up and begin fusion again. The Sun now gets a second chance at life.

As this outer layer contains a bigger volume than the original core of the Sun, it heats up significantly, releasing far more energy. This increase in light pressure from the core pushes much harder against gravity, and expands the volume of the Sun.

Even this isn’t the end of the star’s life. Dammit, Harkness, just stay down. Helium continues to build up, and even this extra shell around the core isn’t hot and dense enough to support fusion. So the core dies again. The star begins to contract, the gravitational energy heats up again, allowing another shell of hydrogen to have the pressure and temperature for fusion, and then we’re back in business!

Red giant. Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer
Red giant. Credit:NASA/ Walt Feimer

Our Sun will likely go through this process multiple times, each phase taking a few years to complete as it expands and contracts, heats and cools. Our Sun becomes a variable star.

Eventually, we run out of usable hydrogen, but fortunately, it’s able to switch over to using helium as fuel, generating carbon and oxygen as byproducts. This doesn’t last long, and when it’s gone, the Sun gets swollen to hundreds of times its size, releasing thousands of times more energy.

This is when the Sun becomes that familiar red giant, gobbling up the tasty planets, including, quite possibly the Earth.The remaining atmosphere puffs out from the Sun, and drifts off into space creating a beautiful planetary nebula that future alien astronomers will enjoy for thousands of years. What’s left is a carbon oxygen core, a white dwarf.

The Sun is completely out of tricks to make fusion happen any more, and it’ll now cool down to the background temperature of the Universe. Our Sun will die in a dramatic way, billions of years from now when it bloats up 500 times its original volume.

What do you think future alien astronomers will call the planetary nebula left behind by the Sun? Give it a name in the comments below.

What’s Going On Inside This New Kind of Variable Star?

A new kind of variable star — 36 of that type, in fact — has been found in a single star cluster. Astronomers don’t even have a name for the star type yet, but feel free to leave some suggestions in the comments!

For now, however, astronomers are wondering what the implications are for our understanding of the stellar interiors.

“The very existence of this new class of variable stars is a challenge to astrophysicists,” stated Sophie Saesen, an astronomer at Geneva Observatory who participated in the research.

“Current theoretical models predict that their light is not supposed to vary periodically at all, so our current efforts are focused on finding out more about the behaviour of this strange new type of star.”

The head-scratching began when astronomers used a European Southern Observatory telescope to gaze at the “Pearl Cluster” (NGC 3766), an open star cluster about 5,800 light years from Earth.

Over seven years of observations with the Leonhard Euler Telescope (taking periodic measurements of brightness), astronomers spotted 36 stars with variable periods of between 2 and 20 hours.

The four-foot (1.2-meter) Leonhard Euler Telescope at the European Southern Observatory. Credit: M. Tewes/ESO
The four-foot (1.2-meter) Leonhard Euler Telescope at the European Southern Observatory. Credit: M. Tewes/ESO

Variable stars have been known for centuries, and many of them are tracked by amateur organizations such as the American Association of Variable Observers. As best as astronomers can figure, the stars become brighter and dimmer due to changes on the inside — stellar vibrations or “quakes” studied under a field called asteroseismology.

A special type of variable stars, called Cepheid variables, can provide accurate measurements of distance since they have an established ratio between luminosity and the period of their variability.

Studying various types of variable stars has provided some insights.

“Asteroseismology of ß Cep[hei] stars, for example, has opened the doors in the past decade to study their interior rotation and convective core,” the astronomers stated in a paper on the research.

The variations in brightness can be interpreted as vibrations, or oscillations within the stars, using a technique called asteroseismology. The oscillations reveal information about the internal structure of the stars, in much the same way that seismologists use earthquakes to probe the Earth's interior. Credit: Kepler Astroseismology team.
The variations in brightness can be interpreted as vibrations, or oscillations within the stars, using a technique called asteroseismology. The oscillations reveal information about the internal structure of the stars, in much the same way that seismologists use earthquakes to probe the Earth’s interior. Credit: Kepler Astroseismology team.

Despite the well-known nature of variable stars, few of them have been studied in open clusters such as NGC 3766.

The reason is it takes a lot of telescope time to take a look at the star — sometimes, years. And time with telescopes is both expensive and precious, making it difficult to allocate the time required.

“Stellar clusters are ideal environments to study stellar variability because some basic properties and the evolutionary status of individual star members can be derived from the properties of the cluster,” the astronomers stated.

“It, however, requires extensive monitoring on an as-long-as-possible time base line. This requirement may explain why not many clusters have been studied for their variability content so far, compared to the number of known and characterized clusters.”

These particular stars in NGC 3766, however, were puzzling.

“The stars are somewhat hotter and brighter than the Sun, but otherwise apparently unremarkable,” ESO stated, yet they had variations of about 0.1% of each star’s normal brightness.

Cepheid Variable Star.  Credit:  Hubble Space Telescope
Cepheid Variable Star. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope

It’s possible, but not proven yet, that perhaps the stars’ spin has something to do with the brightness.

Some of the observed objects whip around at speeds so fast that some material might be punted away from the star and into space, the astronomers wrote in a press release.

“In those conditions, the fast spin will have an important impact on their internal properties, but we are not able yet to adequately model their light variations,” stated Nami Mowlavi, another Geneva Observatory astronomer who led the paper.

Also, astronomers haven’t named this class of stars yet. Do you have any ideas? For more information and to generate suggestions, you can read the paper here in Astronomy & Astrophysics. Then you can leave your thoughts in the comments.

Source: European Southern Observatory

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: October 22-28, 2012

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! It’s going to be a great week to enjoy lunar studies, but why don’t we take a look at couple of other interesting objects, too? I think this would be the perfect opportunity to chase an asteroid! Not enough? Then get out your zombie hunting equipment and we’ll have a look at the “Demon Star”, too! Whenever you’re ready to learn a little more about the history and mystery of what’s out there, just meet me in the back yard…

Monday, October 22 – Something very special happened today in 2136 B.C. There was a solar eclipse, and for the very first time it was seen and recorded by Chinese astronomers. And probably a very good thing because in those days the royal astronomers were executed for failure to predict! Today is also the birthday of Karl Jansky. Born in 1905, Jansky was an American physicist as well as an electrical engineer. One of his pioneer discoveries was non-Earth-based radio waves at 20.5 MHz, a detection he made while investigating noise sources during 1931 and 1932. And, in 1975, Soviet Venera 9 was busy sending Earth the very first look at Venus’ surface.

Also today in 1966 Luna 12 was launched towards the Moon – as so shall we be. We’ll continue our lunar explorations as we look for the “three ring circus” of easily identified craters – Theophilus, Cyrillus, and Catherina – a challenging crater which spans 114 kilometers and goes below the lunar surface by 4730 meters. Are you ready to discover a very conspicuous lunar feature that was never officially named? Cutting its way across Mare Nectaris from Theophilus to shallow crater Beaumont in the south, you’ll see a long, thin, bright line. What you are looking at is an example of a lunar dorsum – nothing more than a wrinkle or low ridge. Chances are good that this ridge is just a “wave” in the lava flow that congealed when Mare Nectaris formed. This particular dorsa is quite striking tonight because of low illumination angle. Has it been named? Yes. It is unofficially known as “Dorsum Beaumont,” but by whatever name it is called, it remains a distinct feature you’ll continue to enjoy! Also to the far south along the terminator you will see Mutus, a small crater with black interior and bright, thin west wall crest. Angling further southwest from Mutus, look for a “bite” taken out of the terminator. This is crater Manzinus.

Tuesday, October 23 – Now it’s time to look for Mare Vaporum – “The Sea of Vapors” – on the southwest shore of Mare Serenitatis. Formed from newer lava flow inside an old crater, this lunar sea is edged to its north by the mighty Apennine Mountains. On its northeastern edge, look for the now washed-out Haemus Mountains. Can you see where lava flow has reached them? This lava has come from different time periods and the slightly different colorations are easy to spot even with binoculars.

Further south and edged by the terminator is Sinus Medii – the “Bay in the Middle” of the visible lunar surface. Central on the terminator, and the adopted “center” of the lunar disc, this the point from which latitude and longitude are measured. This smooth plain may look small, but it covers about as much area as the states of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. During full daylight temperatures in Sinus Medii can reach up to 212 degrees! On a curious note, in 1930 Sinus Medii was chosen by Edison Petitt and Seth Nicholson for a surface temperature measurement at full Moon. Experiments of this type were started by Lord Rosse as early as 1868, but on this occasion Petit and Nicholson found the surface to be slightly warmer than boiling water. Around a hundred years after Rosse’s attempt, Surveyor 6 successfully landed in Sinus Medii on November 9, 1967, and became the very first probe to “lift off” from the lunar surface.

Wednesday, October 24 – Today in 1851, a busy astronomer was at the eyepiece as William Lassell discovered Uranus’ moons Ariel and Umbriel. Although this is far beyond backyard equipment, we can have a look at that distant world. While Uranus’ small, blue/green disc isn’t exactly the most exciting thing to see in a small telescope or binoculars, the very thought that we are looking at a planet that’s over 18 times further from the Sun than we are is pretty impressive! Usually holding close to a magnitude 6, we watch as the tilted planet orbits our nearest star once every 84 years. Its atmosphere is composed of hydrogen, helium and methane, yet pressure causes about a third of this distant planet to behave as a liquid. Larger telescopes may be able to discern a few of Uranus’ moons, for Titania (the brightest) is around magnitude 14.

Let’s begin our lunar studies tonight with a deeper look at the “Sea of Rains.” Our mission is to explore the disclosure of Mare Imbrium, home to Apollo 15. Stretching out 1123 kilometers over the Moon’s northwest quadrant, Imbrium was formed around 38 million years ago when a huge object impacted the lunar surface creating a gigantic basin.

The basin itself is surrounded by three concentric rings of mountains. The most distant ring reaches a diameter of 1300 kilometers and involves the Montes Carpatus to the south, the Montes Ap-enninus southwest, and the Caucasus to the east. The central ring is formed by the Montes Alpes, and the innermost has long been lost except for a few low hills which still show their 600 kilometer diameter pattern through the eons of lava flow. Originally the impact basin was believed to be as much as 100 kilometers deep. So devastating was the event that a Moon-wide series of fault lines appeared as the massive strike shattered the lunar lithosphere. Imbrium is also home to a huge mascon, and images of the far side show areas opposite the basin where seismic waves traveled through the interior and shaped its landscape. The floor of the basin rebounded from the cataclysm and filled in to a depth of around 12 kilometers. Over time, lava flow and regolith added another five kilometers of material, yet evidence remains of the ejecta which was flung more than 800 kilometers away, carving long runnels through the landscape.

Thursday, October 25 – And who was watching the planets in 1671? None other than Giovanni Cassini – because he’d just discovered Saturn’s moon Iapetus.

Tonight let’s discover our own Moon as we take a look at Mare Insularum, the “Sea Of Islands”. Ir will be partially revealed tonight as one of the most prominent of lunar craters – Copernicus – guides the way. While only a small section of this reasonably young mare is now visible southwest of Copernicus, the lighting will be just right to spot its many different colored lava flows. To the northeast is a lunar club challenge: Sinus Aestuum. Latin for the Bay of Billows, this mare-like region has an approximate diameter of 290 kilometers, and its total area is about the size of the state of New Hampshire. Containing almost no features, this area is low albedo and provides very little surface reflectivity. Can you see any of Copernicus’ splash rays beginning to appear yet?

Today is the birthday of Henry Norris Russell. Born in 1877, Russell was the American leader in establishing the modern field of astrophysics. As the namesake for the American Astronomical Society’s highest award (for lifetime contributions to the field), Mr. Russell is the “R” in HR diagrams, along with Mr. Hertzsprung. This work was first used in a 1914 paper, published by Russell.

Tonight let’s have a look at a star that resides right in the middle of the HR diagram as we have a look Beta Aquarii.

Named Sadal Suud (“Luck of Lucks”), this star of spectral type G is around 1030 light-years distant from our solar system and shines 5800 times brighter than our own Sun. The main sequence beauty also has two 11th magnitude optical companions. The one closest to Sadal Suud was discovered by John Herschel in 1828, while the further star was reported by S.W. Burnham in 1879.

Friday, October 26 – It’s big. It’s bright. It’s the Moon! Look for a small, but very bright, small crater that you just can’t miss… Kepler! This great landmark crater named for Johannes Kepler only spans 32 kilometers, but drops to a deep 2750 meters below the surface. It’s a class I crater that’s a geological hotspot! As the very first lunar crater to be mapped by the U.S. Geological Survey, the area around Kepler contains many smooth lava domes reaching no more than 30 meters above the plains. The crater rim is very bright, consisting mostly of a pale rock called anorthosite. The “lines” extending from Kepler are fragments that were splashed out and flung across the lunar surface when the impact occurred. According to records, in 1963 a glowing red area was spotted near Kepler and extensively photographed. Normally one of the brightest regions of the Moon, the brightness value at the time nearly doubled! Although it was rather exciting, scientists later determined the phenomenon was caused by high energy particles from a solar flare reflecting from Kepler’s high albedo surface – a sharp contrast from the dark mare composed primarily of dark minerals of low reflectivity (albedo) such as iron and magnesium. The region is also home to features known as “domes” – similar to Earth’s shield volcanoes – seen between the crater and the Carpathian Mountains. In the days ahead all details around Kepler will be lost, so take this opportunity to have a good look at one awesome small crater.

This evening we are once again going to study a single star, which will help you become acquainted with the constellation of Perseus. Its formal name is Beta Persei and it is the most famous of all eclipsing variable stars. Tonight, let’s identify Algol and learn all about the “Demon Star.”

Ancient history has given this star many names. Associated with the mythological figure Perseus, Beta was considered to be the head of Medusa the Gorgon, and was known to the Hebrews as Rosh ha Satan or “Satan’s Head.” 17th century maps labeled Beta as Caput Larvae, or the “Specter’s Head,” but it is from the Arabic culture that the star was formally named. They knew it as Al Ra’s al Ghul, or the “Demon’s Head,” and we know it as Algol. Because these medieval astronomers and astrologers associated Algol with danger and misfortune, we are led to believe that Beta’s strange visual variable properties were noted throughout history.

Italian astronomer Geminiano Montanari was the first to record that Algol occasionally “faded,” and its methodical timing was cataloged by John Goodricke in 1782, who surmised that it was being partially eclipsed by a dark companion orbiting it. Thus was born the theory of the “eclipsing binary” and this was proved spectroscopically in 1889 by H. C. Vogel. At 93 light-years away, Algol is the nearest eclipsing binary of its kind, and is treasured by the amateur astronomer because it requires no special equipment to easily follow its stages. Normally Beta Persei holds a magnitude of 2.1, but approximately every three days it dims to magnitude 3.4 and gradually brightens again. The entire eclipse only lasts about 10 hours!

Although Algol is known to have two additional spectroscopic companions, the true beauty of watching this variable star is not telescopic – but visual. The constellation of Perseus is well placed this month for most observers and appears like a glittering chain of stars that lie between Cassiopeia and Andromeda. To help further assist you, re-locate last week’s study star, Gamma Andromedae (Almach) east of Algol. Almach’s visual brightness is about the same as Algol’s at maximum.

Saturday, October 27 – Tonight let’s skip the Moon and hunt down an asteroid! We’ll be locating Vesta which will be cruising along the southern border of Taurus, just about a handspan north/northwest of Betelgeuse. However, since asteroids are always on the move, the position will need to be calculated for your area, so use your local planetarium programs to get an accurate map. When you’re ready, let’s talk…

Asteroid Vesta is considered to be a minor planet since its approximate diameter is 525 km (326 miles), making it slightly smaller in size than the state of Arizona. Vesta was discovered on March 29, 1807 by Heinrich Olbers and it was the fourth such “minor planet” to be identified. Olbers’ discovery was fairly easy because Vesta is the only asteroid bright enough at times to be seen unaided from Earth. Why? Orbiting the Sun every 3.6 years and rotating on its axis in 5.24 hours, Vesta has an albedo (or surface reflectivity) of 42%. Although it is about 220 million miles away, pumpkin-shaped Vesta is the brightest asteroid in our solar system because it has a unique geological surface. Spectroscopic studies show it to be basaltic, which means lava once flowed on the surface. (Very interesting, since most asteroids were once thought to be rocky fragments left-over from our forming solar system!)

Studies by the Hubble telescope have confirmed this, as well as shown a large meteoric impact crater which exposed Vesta’s olivine mantle. Debris from Vesta’s collision then set sail away from the parent asteroid. Some of the debris remained within the asteroid belt near Vesta to become asteroids themselves with the same spectral pyroxene signature, but some escaped through the “Kirkwood Gap” created by Jupiter’s gravitational pull. This allowed these small fragments to be kicked into an orbit that would eventually bring them “down to Earth.” Did one make it? Of course! In 1960 a piece of Vesta fell to Earth and was recovered in Australia. Thanks to Vesta’s unique properties, the meteorite was definitely classified as once being a part of our third largest asteroid. Now, that we’ve learned about Vesta, let’s talk about what we can see from our own backyards.

As you can discern from images, even the Hubble Space Telescope doesn’t give incredible views of this bright asteroid. What we will be able to see in our telescopes and binoculars will closely resemble a roughly magnitude 7 “star,” and it is for that reason that I strongly encourage you to visit Heavens Above, follow the instructions and print yourself a detailed map of the area. When you locate the proper stars and the asteroid’s probable location, mark physically on the map Vesta’s position. Keeping the same map, return to the area a night or two later and see how Vesta has moved since your original mark. Since Vesta will stay located in the same area for awhile, your observations need not be on a particular night, but once you learn how to observe an asteroid and watch it move – you’ll be back for more!

Sunday, October 28 – Today in 1971, Great Britain launched its first satellite – Prospero.

Tonight we’ll launch our journey along the southern shore of Mare Humorum and identify ancient crater Vitello. Notice how this delicate ring resembles earlier study Gassendi on the opposite shore. Its slopes have been crushed by the impact that formed crater Lee to its west. As you begin to circle around Mare Humorum and start northward again, you’ll be traveling along the Rupes Kelvin – ending in the spearhead formation of Promentorium Kelvin. Here again is another extremely old feature, a triangular mountainous cape born in the pre-Imbrian period and as much as 4 billion years old. It could be as long as 41 miles and about as wide as 21 miles, but its height is impossible to judge.

Take a breath now, and we’ll look for two more dark patches to guide us on. South of Mare Humorum is darker Paulus Epidemiarum eastward and paler Lacus Excellentiae westward. To their south you will see a complex cojoined series of craters we’ll take a closer look at – Hainzel and Mee. Hainzel was named for Tycho Brahe’s assistant and measures about 70 kilometers in length and sports several various interior wall structures. Power up and look. Hainzel’s once high walls were obliterated on the north-east by the strike that caused Hainzel C and to the north by impact which caused the formation of Hainzel A. To its basic south is eroded Mee – named for a Scottish astronomer. While Crater Mee doesn’t appear to be much more than simple scenery, it spans 172 kilometers and is far older than Hainzel. While you can spot it easily in binoculars, close telescope inspection shows how the crater is completely deformed by Hainzel. Its once high walls have collapsed to the northwest and its floor is destroyed. Can you spot small impact crater Mee E on the northern edge?

Until next week, wishing you clear and steady skies!

Red Giant Brightness Variations Still Mysterious


Like everything else in the Universe, stars get old. As they become older, stars like our own Sun “puff up”, becoming red giants for a period before finally settling down into white dwarfs. During this late period of their stellar lives, about 30% of low-mass red giants exhibit a curious variability in their brightness that remains unexplained to this day. A new survey of these types of red giants rules out most of the current explanations put forth, making it necessary to find a new theory for their behavior.

Red giants are a stage in the later part of a Sun-like star’s life when most of the fuel powering nuclear fusion in the core of the star is exhausted. The resulting lack of light pressure pushing out against the force of gravity causes the star to collapse in on itself. When this collapse occurs, though, it heats up a shell of hydrogen around the core enough to reignite fusion, resulting in an increase in nuclear fusion that causes the star to become bigger due to the increased light pressure. This can result in the star becoming 1,000 to 10,000 times more luminous.

Variability in the light output of red giants is natural -they swell up and shrink down in a consistent pattern, resulting in brighter and dimmer light outputs. There is, however, a difference in the brightness of roughly a third to one half of these stars that happens over longer time periods, to the tune of up to five years.

Called the Long Secondary Period (LSP), the changing brightness of the star happens over longer timescales than the shorter period pulsation. It is this long-term variation in brightness that remains unexplained.

A new detailed study of 58 variable red giants in the Large Magellanic cloud by Peter Wood and Christine Nicholls, both of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University, shows that the proposed explanations of this mysterious variability fall short of the measured properties of the stars. Nicholls and Wood used the FLAMES/GIRAFFE spectrograph on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, and combined the information with data from other telescopes like the Spitzer Space Telescope.

There are two leading explanations of the phenomenon: the presence of a companion object to the red giants that orbit in such a way to change their brightness, or the presence of a circumstellar dust cloud that somehow blocks the light coming from the star in our direction on a periodic scale.

A binary companion to the stars would change their orbit in such a way that they would approach and recede from the vantage point of the Earth, and if the companion passed in front of the star it would also dim the light streaming from the red giant. In the case of a binary companion, the spectra of the brightness change among all of these stars is relatively similar, meaning that for this explanation to work, all of the red giants exhibiting the LSP variation would have to have a companion of a similar size, approximately 0.09 times the mass of the Sun. This scenario would be extremely unlikely, given the large number of stars that show this brightness variation.

The effect of a circumstellar dust cloud could be a possible explanation. A cloud of circumstellar dust that obscures the light from the star once per orbit would dim its light enough to explain the phenomenon. The presence of such a dust cloud would be revealed by an excess of light coming from the star in the mid-infrared spectrum. The dust would absorb light from the star, and re-emit it in the form of light in the mid-infrared region of the spectrum.

Observations of LSP stars show the mid-infrared signature that’s a telltale sign of dust, but the correlation between the two doesn’t mean that the dust is causing the brightness variation. It could be that the dust is a byproduct of ejected mass from the star itself, the underlying cause of which could be associated with the change in brightness.

Whatever the cause of the oscillation of brightness in these red giants may be, it does make them eject mass in large clumps or in the form of an expanding disc. Obviously, further observations will be necessary to track down the reason for this phenomenon.

The results of the observations made by Nicholls and Wood have been published in The Astrophysical Journal. Two articles describing their findings are available on Arxiv, here and here.

Source: ESO, Arxiv papers

VY Canis Majoris

VY Canis Majoris. The biggest known star.

Of all known stars, the VY Canis Majoris is the largest. This red Hypergiant star, found in the constellation Canis Major, is estimated to have a radius at least 1,800 that of the Sun’s. In astronomy-speak we use the term 1,800 solar radii to refer to this particular size. Although not the most luminous among all known stars, it still ranks among the top 50.

Hypergiants are the most massive and luminous of stars. As such, they emit energy at a very fast rate. Thus, hypergiants only last for a few million years. Compare that to the Sun and similar stars that can keep on burning up to 10 billion years.

VY Canis Majoris a.k.a. VY CMa is about 4,900 light years from the Earth. This value, however, is just a rough estimate because it is too far for parallax to be used. Parallax is the most common method for measuring star distances. It is actually a special kind of triangulation method, i.e., similar to the one employed by engineers that make use of angles and a fixed baseline.

Some stars exist in pairs. These are called binary star systems. There are also multiple star systems. VY CMa, however, burns as a single star.

Being a semiregular variable star, VY Canis Majoris exhibits periodic light changes. Its period lasts for about 2,200 days.

The French astronomer Jerome Lalande is credited to be the first person to have recorded VY CMa. The entry in his star catalogue, dated March 7, 1801, lists it as a 7th magnitude star. Apparent magnitude is a unit of measurement for the brightness of a star as observed from Earth. The greater a star’s magnitude, the less bright it is.

Hence, a star with a magnitude of 1 (a.k.a. a 1st magnitude star) is considered among the brightest. There are also negative values, which denote even brighter bodies. Just to give you an idea where VY Canis Majoris stands in terms of brightness, the Sun (the brightest from our perspective) has an apparent magnitude = -26.73, while the faintest objects observable in the visible light spectrum (as detected from the Hubble Telescope) have magnitudes = 30.

It was once believed that VY CMa was a multiple star system. This was due to six discrete components that were measured by observers during the 19th century. Scientists eventually realized that the said discrete components were actually bright areas of the surrounding nebula.

You can read more about the VY Canis Majoris here in Universe Today. Here are the links:

Read more about it at NASA:

Here are two episodes at Astronomy Cast that you might want to check out as well: