Massive Blue Supergiant Challenges Theory of How Big a Star Can Be

By Joseph Calamia | July 21, 2010 2:20 pm

Welcome to the Tarantula Nebula, home to heavy-weight stars. Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope and Very Large Telescope in Chile, scientists have found a star estimated at about 265 times the mass of the sun. That makes it by far the most massive star ever found, and challenges astronomers’ notions of just how big a star can get.

The Tarantula Nebula is 165,000 light years away in the the Large Magellenic Cloud galaxy. This star, called R136a1, is located in the R136 stellar cluster; with 10 million times the luminosity of the sun, it’s the brightest of a bevy of massive stars recently discovered. The finding, published earlier this month in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, may require scientists to come up with a new stellar life cycle for the most massive stars. The life a star leads depends on its mass, and the previously estimated mass limit was thought to be around 150 times the sun’s mass.

Lead author Paul Crowther explains that the big guy falls into the stellar category of “blue supergiants,” which are still a mystery from start to finish: It’s not clear whether a star can be born this big, or whether it grows through mergers.

Supergiants also remain as much of a puzzle at the end of their lives. Although all will eventually go supernova, the type of explosion they will generate is unknown. They could form neutron stars or black holes or obliterate themselves. Whatever their fate is, he says, “We still can’t say.” [ScienceNOW]

Finding such massive stars is difficult, given their scarcity and relative short-lives. Many don’t live long enough to escape the crowd of their stellar birthplace, making them hard to spot and making it possible for scientists to confuse two closely paired stars for one bigger star. The team doesn’t think they’ve made that mistake.

Scientists said the authors had made a strong case, arguing that the solar material being thrown off from feuding stars in a binary system would produce much more powerful X-rays than have been detected. [AP]

Just like spotting the stars, measuring their mass is also difficult. With a star that is part of a binary system, scientists can look at how one influences the orbit of the other to determine mass, but the team had no such convenient companions for R136a1. They instead used a model to predict the star’s mass based on analysis of the light coming from it, which yields a less exact result.

That means we can’t be sure just how massive R136a1 is, or how massive it was when it was born. “I think they’ve gotten a very believable answer,” says Philip Massey of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. “It’s certainly a very significant find,” he adds, though he says many astronomers already suspected that 150 solar masses was not a hard limit. “I think most people will view this [with] glee and say ‘I told you so’.” [New Scientist]

What might it be like to live around such a massive star? Scientists say it’s unlikely that such stars could ever have planetary neighbors, but that living near R136a1 would certainly be bright.

“Planets take longer to form than these stars take to live and die. Even if there were planets, there would be no astronomers on them because the night sky would be almost as bright as the day in these clusters,” Professor Crowther joked. . . . “Some of these big stars are relatively close to each other, so even at ‘night’ you’d have another very bright star shining on you.” [BBC]

Related content:
80beats: Breathtaking Images of Star Birth Amid the Cold Cosmic Dust
80beats: Photo: Heart and Soul Nebulae Reveal Star Birth in the Cold Dust
80beats: Hubble Snaps New Pics of Star Birth to Celebrate 100,000 Orbits
80beats: Star Birth on the Edge of a Black Hole
80beats: How a Massive Star Is Born (with gallery)

Images: ESO

  • Anthony

    That’s just… incredible.

    The Earth would barely even be a pixel on that scale!

  • LimRickNews

    Scientists have discovered a huge star.
    320 solar masses, the heaviest by far.
    10 million times shinier than our sun,
    Goes by the name R136a-one,
    A good pick-up line, if you stop by a sci-bar.
    For more, google “LimRickNews”.

  • Ignotus

    LimRickNews: Why would I want more?

  • Anon

    @Ignotus: HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! Touché, sir! 😀

  • Jesus

    I wonder why god sent us – so tiny creature in this world – Jesus!
    That makes me wonder how many other Jesus exists on other planets!
    Maybe it’s all BS!

  • Chris the Canadian

    Someone (#5) needs to get off the bong… This is amazing, the size of this star is … inconceivable!!!!

  • Gabe

    Hmmm… This shouldn’t be considered a supergiant, it should be considered a hypergiant, the most massive stars in the universe. Supergiant is an under estimate of this star. I think the super nova might even obliterate the entire galaxy if it is that large. O.o

  • Mary

    Who cares what God does on other planets, anyway?

  • Markoff Chaney

    He likes our planet the best, that’s why he gave us tornadoes and herpes and ice cream cones.

  • Hip Spanic

    Also cacti.

  • My name is Inigo Montoya

    You killed my father. Prepare to die.

  • geeta

    How close can 2 such supergiants be, given the enormous gravitational force they would have? Will it be close enough to illuninate the night sky of a planet like day?

  • Bob Docking

    I know that astronomers have been looking at, taking pictures of, the Tarantula Nebula for decades now. If this star was/is so big, then one would have assumed it would stand out like dogs balls. Why is it only now that we are being told that it exists? I think that someone is after their own 15 minutes of fame, and really would have no idea about this at all. It is like the other science news story that says that another 100 planets have been discovered in the last couple of weeks. What a heap of crock! These people would have no idea and they all use computer graphics to get the desired pictures they want and then sprout on to their hearts content about things they have no idea about, but would have us all believe that they do.

  • Inigo Montoya


  • Bojan

    Why is this star discovered anyway ?

  • local newspaper ads

    I always read the Saturday adverts to find out where the best deals are and then My partner and i plan where I am going to store appropriately.

  • robert

    how long do these stars live? and how do they get so massive


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