Biggest Star Still Managed To Hide Until Just Now

Earlier this week, scientists released their discovery of what is the most massive star ever recorded. R136a1 once weighed almost 320 times as much as our sun, and shines with nearly 10 million times the luminosity of it. Host Scott Simon talks with Michael Shara, curator of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, about the discovery.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Each star in our universe is a giant, ferocious ball of gas - kind of like a radio host - burning up fuel, churning together elements, and letting off torrential waves of heat and light. Now, take the heaviest of the stars that we had on record as of last week, double its poundage. What you'd have is the new heavyweight champion of stars, R136A1.

The researchers who released their findings this week say it's about 165,000 light years away. It burns with 10 million times the brightness of the sun. And it could scale in at nearly 320 times the mass of our own sun. Michael Shara is the curator of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. And he joins us from the Radio Foundation.

Thanks for being with us, Mr. Shara.

Mr. MICHAEL SHARA (American Museum of Natural History): Absolutely my pleasure.

SIMON: So like,what's it like if we could get close?

Mr. SHARA: Very unpleasant. If you stuck such an object in the middle of the solar system, replaced the sun with it, it would practically reach the Earth. And we would roast away both our atmosphere, our ocean, and the top of the continents in a matter of minutes. And we'd certainly be gone, too.

SIMON: Well, it's, as I understand it, the most massive star but not the biggest?

Mr. SHARA: We don't really have a direct measurement of the size. We can deduce what it almost certainly is. And yes, there certainly are bigger stars in the universe, which are much more puffed up. But in terms of the mass, this does appear to be the all-time record holder.

SIMON: Now, I'm guessing an object this enormous is something you've had - I mean, you didn't just notice it last week.

Mr. SHARA: No. This object has been in catalogs for a better part of the century. It's part of the...

SIMON: You mean, like L.L. Bean or...

Mr. SHARA: Yeah, right. In astronomical catalogs, where we compile either bright stars or planetary nebulae or asteroids, or whatever. And the original registration was R136 - the 136th object in a particular catalog. So we've known that there was something extraordinary there. And that's what the claim is now, that this is a single, unresolved, super-massive star.

SIMON: You know, it's possible, Mr. Shara, that our children one day will have children who are named things like R136A1. But...

Mr. SHARA: Boy, I hope not.

SIMON: ...but, I mean, why not put a name on this?

Mr. SHARA: We do use the catalog numbers, partly because it refers back to the original catalog. And once you go back to the original catalog, you can find all the literature that refers to it. So naming it John's Star or Betty's Bright Object would take that away from us.

SIMON: Mr. Shara, thanks so much.

Mr. SHARA: My pleasure.

SIMON: Michael Shara, curator of astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History.

(Soundbite of song, "Shining Star")

EARTH WIND AND FIRE (Music Group): You're a shining star, no matter who you are. Shining bright to see what you could truly be, what you could truly be.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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