Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Runaway Giant

The Large Magellanic Cloud is a nearby irregular galaxy that is located about 160 thousand light years away and it is also a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. Extremely massive stars will up to 300 times the mass of our Sun are known to exist in a massive star cluster called R136 which is located near the center of the Tarantula Nebula, in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Residing in R136 is a star called R136a1 and this star is currently on record as the most massive star known, with a colossal mass that is estimated to be 265 times the mass of our Sun. Just after birth, R136a1 is estimated to have 320 times the mass of our Sun, having lost 50 solar masses over the past million years! R136a1 also hold the record for the most luminous star known as it blazes with 10 million times the luminosity of our Sun.

Located at a projected distance of 95 light years from the massive star cluster R136 in the Tarantula Nebula of the Large Magellanic Cloud is a very massive star called VFTS 682. Spectroscopic observations have revealed VFTS 682 to be a hydrogen-rich Wolf-Rayet star. Wolf-Rayet stars are massive stars which lose mass rapidly by emitting very strong stellar winds at speed of up to a couple of thousand kilometers per second. What makes VFTS 682 perplexing is that this star is one of the most massive stars found in isolation. Very massive stars generally reside in the centers of massive star clusters since the formation of such objects are generally known to occur in the dense environments found in the centers of massive star clusters. The presence of such an extremely massive star outside the massive star cluster R136 presents the question of whether it was ejected from R136 or did it form in isolation instead.

The physical properties of VFTS 682 are impressive as VFTS 682 is estimated to have over 3 million times the luminosity of our Sun and a mass on the order of 150 times the mass of our Sun. VFTS 682 is a single isolated star as it shows no signs of binarity. Spectroscopic observations have shown that in terms of spectral appearance, VFTS 682 is almost identical to another very massive star called R136a3 which is located in the core of the massive star cluster R136. From velocity measurements, VFTS 682 is estimated to have a true velocity of 40 kilometers per second with respect to R136, placing it in the lower range of velocities for runaway stars. If VFTS 682 is indeed a runaway star, it will be the most massive one known to date and a bow shock might even be observable around VFTS 682 as it is surrounded by dust clouds.

Very massive stars are know to form in dense cluster environments where they are generally found because the very short lifespans of very massive stars mean that they have insufficient time to travel far from where they were born. VFTS 682 is indeed a very massive star in isolation and this creates an interesting challenge for dynamical ejection scenarios and massive star formation theory. The paper detailing this discovery is by Joachim M. Bestenlehner et al and it is entitled “The VLT-FLAMES Tarantula Survey III: A very massive star in apparent isolation from the massive cluster R136”.