Saturday, July 24, 2010

Stellar Behemoth

The Tarantula Nebula is an extremely luminous nebula that is located approximately 165000 light years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud and it is the largest and most active star formation region known in the Local Group of galaxies. The Large Magellanic Cloud is basically a nearby irregular galaxy which is roughly one-tenth as massive as the Milky Way Galaxy.

At the heart of the Tarantula Nebula lies an exceptionally dense cluster of stars called R136 which generates most of the light that illuminates the Tarantula Nebula. 4 exceedingly massive and luminous stars sit in the core of the R136 star cluster and they are designated R136a1, R136a2, R136a3 and R136c respectively. Each star is well over 100 times more massive than the Sun and each star is millions of times more luminous than the Sun.

The most massive and luminous of the 4 central stars in the R136 star cluster is the star called R136a1. This behemoth is currently the most massive and luminous star discovered so far. R136a1 has a current mass that is 265 times the mass of the Sun and an initial mass that is estimated to be 320 times the mass of the Sun! Since its birth, R136a1 has shed over 50 times the mass of the Sun in extremely powerful stellar winds.

R136a1 also shines with an “off-the-charts” luminosity that is approximately 10 million times greater than the Sun’s luminosity! To put this extreme luminosity into perspective, R136a1 emits as much energy in 3 seconds as the Sun emits in an entire Earth year! With an age of just over a million years, R136a1 is already a middle-aged star. In comparison, our Sun is already 5000 million years old and the Sun is only halfway through its lifespan.

Although the R136 star cluster contains approximately 100000 stars, its 4 brightest stars (R136a1, R136a2, R136a3 and R136c) account for approximately half of the wind and radiation power of the entire cluster of stars! Because very massive stars are so exceedingly rare, it is unlikely that there is any other star in the Tarantula Nebula or possibly even in the entire Local Group of galaxies that will be comparable to the brightest components of the R136 star cluster. An ultra-massive star like R136a1 is considered to be a very extreme case for a star and R136a1 might well be one in a trillion.

Source: Paul A Crowther, et al. (2010), “The R136 Star Cluster Hosts Several Stars Whose Individual Masses Greatly Exceed the Accepted 150 M_Sun Stellar Mass Limit”, arXiv:1007.3284v1