Mar 11, 2021 - Science

A giant star in deep space is obscured by dust

A huge star called VY Canis Majoris glowing in green and brown
Gas and dust shot out by the star VY Canis Majoris. Photo: NASA/ESA/R. Humphreys

A huge star 300,000 times brighter than the Sun is nearing the end of its life and shrouding itself with dust, according to new data from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Why it matters: Learning more about this star — named VY Canis Majoris — will help astronomers piece together how stars much larger than the Sun evolve and behave at the ends of their stellar lives.

What they found: Scientists using the Hubble found the red hypergiant star is actually shooting out gas and dust, making it look dimmer from the telescope's perspective.

  • "VY Canis Majoris may be in a unique evolutionary state that separates it from the other stars. It's probably this active over a very short period, maybe only a few thousand years. We're not going to see many of those around," astrophysicist Roberta Humphreys, who led a new study about the star in The Astronomical Journal, said in a statement.
  • Scientists expect the star will either one day explode as a supernova or collapse into a black hole.

The intrigue: The star is behaving a lot like another huge, famous star — Betelgeuse.

  • Researchers were keeping an eye on Betelgeuse last year when it appeared to dim far more than expected, stoking excitement that it might be heading for its own supernova explosion.
  • But later research found the star was actually being obscured by dust, causing the apparent dimming.
  • "The origin of these high mass-loss episodes in both VY Canis Majoris and Betelgeuse is probably caused by large-scale surface activity, large convective cells like on the Sun," Humphreys said, referencing features of a star's surface created by the cooling and heating of plasma. "But on VY Canis Majoris, the cells may be as large as the whole Sun or larger."
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