Watching the Violent Death of a Rare, Extreme Supergiant Star

Red Hypergiant Star VY Canis Majoris

Artist’s impression of the red hypergiant star VY Canis Majoris. Located about 3,009 light-years from Earth, VY Canis Majoris is possibly the most massive star in the Milky Way. Credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble / R. Humphreys, University of Minnesota / J. Olmsted, STScI /

By tracing molecular emissions in the outflows around the red hypergiant star VY Canis Majoris, astronomers have obtained the first detailed map of the star’s envelope, which sheds light on the mechanisms involved in the final stages of extreme supergiant star.

A University of Arizona-led team of astronomers has created a detailed, three-dimensional image of a dying hypergiant star. The team, led by UArizona researchers Ambesh Singh and Lucy Ziurys, traced the distribution, directions, and velocities of a variety of molecules surrounding a red hypergiant star known as VY Canis Majoris.

Their findings, which they presented on June 13, 2022, at the 240th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Pasadena, California, offer insights, at an unprecedented scale, into the processes that accompany the death of giant stars. The work was done with collaborators Robert Humphreys from the University of Minnesota and Anita Richards from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.

Extreme supergiant stars known as hypergiants are very rare, with only a few known to exist in the

“Think of it as Betelgeuse on steroids,” said Ziurys, a Regents Professor with joint appointments in UArizona Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Steward Observatory, both part of the College of Science. “It is much larger, much more massive and undergoes violent mass eruptions every 200 years or so.”

The team chose to study VY CMa because it is one of the best examples of these types of stars.

“We are particularly interested in what hypergiant stars do at end of their lives,” said Singh, a fourth-year doctoral student in Ziurys’ lab. “People used to think these massive stars simply evolve into supernovae explosions, but we are no longer sure about…

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