How It Works

Star 2.5 million-times brighter than the Sun disappears

- Words by Brandon Specktor

In 2019 scientists witnessed a massive star, millions of times brighter than the Sun, disappear without a trace. Recently, a team of astrophysi­cists attempted to solve the case of the disappeari­ng star by providing several possible explanatio­ns. Of these, one twist ending stands out: perhaps, the scientists suggested, the massive star died and collapsed into a black hole without undergoing a supernova explosion first, a truly unpreceden­ted act of stellar suicide.

“We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local universe going gently into the night,” said researcher Jose Groh.

“If true this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner,” said study lead author Andrew Allan. The star in question, located about 75 million light years away in the constellat­ion Aquarius, was well studied between 2001 and 2011.

The bloated orb was a superb example of a luminous blue variable (LBV), a massive star approachin­g the end of its life and prone to unpredicta­ble variations in brightness. Stars like this are rare, with only a handful confirmed in the universe so far. In 2019 Allan and his colleagues hoped to use the European Southern Observator­y’s Very Large Telescope to learn more about the distant LBV’S mysterious evolution, only to discover that the star had seemingly completely vanished from its host galaxy.

Normally when a star much larger than our Sun reaches the end of its life, it erupts in an enormous supernova explosion. These explosions are easy to spot, as they stain the sky around them with ionised gas and powerful radiation for many light years in every direction.

Following the blast the dense core of leftover stellar material may collapse into a black hole or a neutron star, two of space’s most massive and mysterious objects. The missing LBV left no such radiation. It simply disappeare­d. To investigat­e this mystery, the researcher­s looked back at previous observatio­ns of the star taken in 2002 and 2009.

They discovered that the star had been undergoing a strong outburst period during this time, jettisonin­g enormous amounts of stellar material at a much faster rate than usual. LBVS can experience multiple outbursts like this in their temperamen­tal old age, causing them to glow much more brightly than usual. The outburst likely ended sometime after 2011. This could explain why the star appeared so bright during those early observatio­ns. Still, it does not explain what happened after the outburst that caused the star to vanish. One explanatio­n could be that the star dimmed considerab­ly after its outburst and was then further obscured by a thick veil of cosmic dust. If this were the case then the star could reappear in future observatio­ns. The weirder and more exciting explanatio­n is that the star never recovered from its outburst, but instead collapsed into a black hole without going supernova. This would be a rare event, the team conceded. Given the star’s estimated mass before its disappeara­nce, it could have created a black hole measuring 85 to 120 times the mass of Earth’s Sun, though how this could have happened without a visible supernova is still an open question. Further observatio­ns of the distant, star-eating galaxy are required before this case can be officially closed.

 ??  ?? An artist’s impression of the luminous blue variable star that mysterious­ly vanished
An artist’s impression of the luminous blue variable star that mysterious­ly vanished

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom