VY Canis Majoris is a stellar goliath, a red hypergiant, one of the largest known stars in the Milky Way. It is 30–40 times the mass of the Sun and 300 000 times more luminous. In its current state, the star would encompass the orbit of Jupiter, having expanded tremendously as it enters the final stages of its life.
Throughout their expansion, massive stars shed large amounts of material — every year, VY Canis Majoris sees 30 times the mass of the Earth expelled from its surface in the form of dust and gas. This cloud of material is pushed outwards before the star explodes, at which point some of the dust is destroyed, and the rest cast out into interstellar space. This material is then used, along with the heavier elements created during the supernova explosion, by the next generation of stars, which may make use of the material for planets.
A team of astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has captured the most detailed images ever of the hypergiant star VY Canis Majoris. These observations show how the unexpectedly large size of the particles of dust surrounding the star enable it to lose an enormous amount of mass as it begins to die. This process, understood now for the first time, is necessary to prepare such gigantic stars to meet explosive demises as supernovae.
“Massive stars live short lives,” says lead author of the paper, Peter Scicluna, of the Academia Sinica Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Taiwan. “When they near their final days, they lose a lot of mass. In the past, we could only theorise about how this happened. But now, with the new SPHERE data, we have found large grains of dust around this hypergiant. These are big enough to be pushed away by the star’s intense radiation pressure, which explains the star’s rapid mass loss.”
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Clips credit: ESO, ESA/HUBBLE
Image credit: Wikimedia
Image credit: Wikimedia
“Sun and VY Canis Majoris” by Oona Räisänen (User:Mysid) – Self-made in Inkscape.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sun_and_VY_Canis_Majoris.svg#/media/File:Sun_and_VY_Canis_Majoris.svg
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