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Weighing massive stars in nearby galaxy reveals excess of heavyweights

5 January 2018


An international team of astronomers, including many from the UK, has revealed an ‘astonishing’ overabundance of massive stars in a neighbouring galaxy.

The discovery, made in the gigantic star-forming region 30 Doradus in the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy, has ‘far-reaching’ consequences for our understanding of how stars transformed the pristine Universe into the one we live in today.

The results are published today in the journal Science and this work has had substantial UK involvement with over a third of the authors being based in the UK at 8 different UK institutes.

As part of the VLT-FLAMES Tarantula Survey (VFTS), the team used ESO’s Very Large Telescope to observe nearly 1,000 massive stars in 30 Doradus, a gigantic stellar nursery also known as the Tarantula nebula. The team used detailed analyses of about 250 stars with masses between 15 and 200 times the mass of our Sun to determine the distribution of massive stars born in 30 Doradus – the so-called initial mass function (IMF).

Lead author Dr Fabian Schneider, a Hintze Research Fellow in the University of Oxford’s Department of Physics, said: ‘We were astonished when we realised that 30 Doradus has formed many more massive stars than expected.’

Professor Chris Evans from the STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the principal investigator of VFTS and a co-author of the study, said: ‘Our results suggest that most of the stellar mass is actually no longer in low-mass stars, but a significant fraction is in high-mass stars.’

Massive stars are particularly important for astronomers because of their enormous influence on their surroundings (known as their ‘feedback’). They can explode in spectacular supernovae at the end of their lives, forming some of the most exotic objects in the Universe – neutron stars and black holes.

Until recently, the existence of stars up to 200 solar masses was highly disputed, and the new study shows that a maximum birth mass of stars of 200-300 solar masses appears likely.

In most parts of the Universe studied by astronomers to date, stars become rarer the more massive they are. The IMF predicts that most stellar mass is in low-mass stars and that less than 1% of all stars are born with masses in excess of ten times that of the Sun. Measuring the proportion of massive stars is extremely difficult – primarily because of their scarcity – and there are only a handful of places in the local Universe where this can be done.

The team turned to 30 Doradus, the biggest local star-forming region, which hosts some of the most massive stars ever found, and determined the masses of massive stars with unique observational, theoretical and statistical tools. This large sample allowed the scientists to derive the most accurate high-mass segment of the IMF to date, and to show that massive stars are much more abundant than previously thought.

Dr Schneider added: “Our results have far-reaching consequences for the understanding of our cosmos: there might be 70% more supernovae, a tripling of the chemical yields and towards four times the ionising radiation from massive star populations. In addition the formation rate of black holes might be increased by 180%, directly translating into a corresponding increase of binary black hole mergers that have recently been detected via their gravitational wave signals.’

The team’s research leaves many open questions, which they intend to investigate in the future including how universal are the findings, and what are the consequences of this for the evolution of our cosmos and the occurrence of supernovae and gravitational wave events?

Contact

Becky Parker
STFC Media Officer
Tel: 07808 879294

Notes to editors

The results are published in the paper ‘An excess of massive stars in the local 30 Doradus starburst’ in the journal Science on 5 January 2018.

Very Large Telescope of the European Southern Observatory

A massive star is often defined as having a mass of more than 8-10 times the mass of the Sun. This means that they can explode in spectacular supernova explosions at the end of their lives, thereby forming some of the most exotic objects in the Universe – neutron stars and black holes.

VLT-FLAMES Tarantula Survey

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile.

ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor.

At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its world-leading Very Large Telescope Interferometer as well as two survey telescopes, VISTA working in the infrared and the visible-light VLT Survey Telescope. ESO is also a major partner in two facilities on Chajnantor, APEX and ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre Extremely Large Telescope, the ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000