Researchers Capture the Best Image of Any Star Ever Taken

James Marshall
August 24, 2017

Astronomers have imaged the surface and atmosphere of a star that lies 550 light-years from Earth.

According to ESO Antares now has a mass around 12 times that of the Sun, and already has a diameter approximately 700 times larger - indicating the expansion that will eventually see it collapse in on itself with such colossal energy that for a few months it may be visible on Earth during the daytime.

In a major breakthrough for our understanding of the wider universe, a team of astronomers has generated the clearest ever image of another star.

This artist's impression shows the red supergiant star Antares. This is the first velocity map (which measure speed of outflowing gas) of any star other than the sun. In turn, that resulted in a map of the relative speed of the atmospheric gas across the entire stellar disc of Antares - the first ever created for a star other than the Sun. At the heart of this very striking grouping of stars lies Antares.

"Antares is losing material not in a smooth or ordered way", lead author of the paper published in the journal Nature, Keiichi Ohnaka, told CBC News.

Antares is the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius, a red supergiant which is 555 light years away. The researchers observed the star's infrared light on five days in 2014 using four telescopes through a process called interferometry, taking data from multiple synchronised telescopes and combining the observations afterwards, turning them into one enormous telescope.

Betelgeuse, a star in the constellation Orion with a radius 1,400 times that of our sun, is another red supergiant that is a ticking time bomb.

"The VLTI is the only facility that can directly measure the gas motions in the extended atmosphere of Antares", Ohnaka said. "The next challenge is to identify what's driving the turbulent motions".

Ohnaka is hopeful that the observational techniques demonstrated on Antares may be applied to other stars to see how their atmospheres are structured, perhaps revealing the mystery that drives these turbulent motions. "This has been limited to just the Sun up to now", Ohnaka said. "But the velocity maps show that it's very clumpy and turbulent and random". In red regions the material is moving away from us and in the blue areas the material is approaching.

Since the star itself is so far from us here on Earth, it's hardly possible to go and check it out for ourselves, so scientists will need to rely on computer models and further observations to get a better handle on the odd behavior of the star's atmosphere. Instead, it will swell and turns into a red giant (not supergiant) and then expel most of its gases into space until it is a mere shell of its former self, a white dwarf.

Aside from the detail, the researchers uncovered gases moving quickly - around 20km/s - far out into the star's surrounding atmosphere.

Other reports by Click Lancashire

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