A European research team headed up by Paul Crowther, professor of Astrophysics at the University of Sheffield in England, discovered a cluster of stars including a few larger than astronomers previously thought possible. The largest of them, R136a1, measured in at 300 solar masses. This shatters the maximum figure that scientists had provided, which was a meager 150 solar masses.
For some time, there was no theory regarding a maximum size for stars, but in 2005 the Hubble telescope examined the Arches cluster, the densest in our galaxy. Many expected us to find stars ranging from 100 to 1,000 times as massive as our own sun, but no stars of more than 150 solar masses were found. This was startling, and led to a longstanding theory that stars couldn’t exceed 150 solar masses.
It’s also important to understand the scientific reasoning behind why there would be a physical limit to star mass. What happens with stars is that as mass increases, more core energy is created, and that energy starts to outgrow the force of gravity keeping the whole star together. People have estimated that 150 solar masses, based on the Arches research, must be the greatest mass possible where a star can stay together. There can’t be more. That many solar masses is too unstable.
Well, evidently NASA and the scientific world were wrong. Ha! And with the discovery of these remarkable stars (the most massive was also the brightest, recorded as 10 million times brighter than our sun) come many more questions. How are these stars able to stay together? Well, they don’t stay together for long, as they have shorter life spans than most stars, making them more difficult to study. Scientists also aren’t sure how exactly such massive stars can be born in the first place.
Crowther told Space.com, “Owing to the rarity of these monsters, I think it is unlikely that this new record will be broken any time soon.” Well, it was only five years ago that we developed our old estimate for maximum star size. Maybe in another five years this one will be topped as well.
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