When speaking of the cosmos, we like to attach really amazing modifiers to the phenomena we find there, prefixes like “super-” and “extra-“ or adjectives like “massive” and “giant.” So, having used up most of the good ones, we’re not really sure how to describe the gargantuan (oh, that’s a good one) star that European researchers just discovered with the ESO’s Very Large Telescope; at 265 times the mass of our own sun, it is the largest star ever discovered, by more than 100 solar masses. That is to say: it’s really, really big.
Named R136a1, the star is about 165,000 light years away from Earth in the Large Magellanic Cloud – not so very far by super-massive galactic standards. It is easily the brightest star in the neighborhood (millions of times brighter than our own), but while it’s still putting up nice statistics ESO researchers say it used to be a whole lot bigger. In its early days it was probably 320 times the mass of the sun, more than double what some contemporary astronomers thought was more or less the upper limit for star mass (around 150 solar masses).But the bigger they are the harder they fall, and R136a1 could be a further boon for researchers should it begin to burn out, as it is a candidate for an exotic kind of star death called pair-instability supernova. As expected from a star that is so big it defies description, such a demise would be particularly violent and extremely bright. But it could also teach researchers a lot about star death.
Such monster stars are extremely rare and one researcher on the ESO team says it’s probably as big of a star as will be discovered with our current telescope tech (beyond a certain point we can no longer pick out individual stars in a cluster). But next-gen telescopes that will go online in the coming decade will let us see even farther, hopefully helping us to discover even more extra-super-gigantuous stellar bodies – and words to describe them – in the not-too-distant future.
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