Uncovering the secrets of the Quintuplet Cluster

Uncovering the secrets of the Quintuplet Cluster

Although this cluster of stars gained its name due to its five brightest stars, it is home to hundreds more. The huge number of massive young stars in the cluster is clearly captured in this NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image. The cluster is located close to the Arches Cluster and is just 100 light-years from the centre of our galaxy. The cluster’s proximity to the dust at the centre of the galaxy means that much of its visible light is blocked, which helped to keep the cluster unknown until its discovery in 1990, when it was revealed by observations in the infrared. Infrared images of the cluster, like the one shown here, allow us to see through the obscuring dust to the hot stars in the cluster. The Quintuplet Cluster hosts two extremely rare luminous blue variable stars: the Pistol Star and the lesser known V4650 Sgr. If you were to draw a line horizontally through the centre of this image from left to right, you could see the Pistol Star hovering just above the line about one third of the way along it. The Pistol Star is one of the most luminous known stars in the Milky Way and takes its name from the shape of the Pistol Nebula that it illuminates, but which is not visible in this infrared image. The exact age and future of the Pistol Star are uncertain, but it is expected to end in a supernova or even a hypernova in one to three million years. The cluster also contains a number of red supergiants. These stars are among the largest in the galaxy and are burning their fuel at an incredible speed, meaning they will have a very short lifetime. Their presence suggests an average cluster age of nearly four million years. At the moment these stars are on the verge of exploding as supernovae. During their spectacular deaths they will release vast amounts of energy which, in turn, will heat the material — dust and gas — between the other stars. This observation shows the Quintuplet Cluster in the infrared and demonstrates the leap in Hubble’s performance sinc

Photo by: NASA

NASA

How Stars Die: The Fate of a Hypernova

All Stars die. Some stars go out with a bang. Some stars go out with a big bang — a supernova. And some stars are capable of something so spectacular, so rare, we don't even have a name for it yet.

November 06, 2020

Let's start with a little intro into astronomy jargon. A “nova” — which comes from the Latin word for “new” — is a star that suddenly flares in brightness for one reason or another. A “supernova” is like a nova but super, so bright that they can outshine hundreds of billions of normal stars. Supernovas happen when big stars in our universe kick the bucket.

Super, Supernova

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Photo by: Science Photo Library - MEHAU KULYK.

Science Photo Library - MEHAU KULYK.

But starting in the 1990s, astronomers started to see supernova that were even more super than normal. We're talking 10 to 100 times brighter than your typical garden variety supernova. Astronomers gave them a name, hypernova, because that sounded suitably awesome in the fashion of the '90s.

Also in typical astronomical style, they got a name before we even had a hint of what they really were.

Today a brighter-than-average supernova can be named one of many things. They can be called hypernovas, but some astronomers prefer the term superluminous supernova.

But while we still debate the name, we do have an understanding of one potential cause of these extra bright all-stars. And you guessed it, it involves a lot of mass.

Like, Really Big

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Photo by: Science Photo Library - MEHAU KULYK.

Science Photo Library - MEHAU KULYK.

If you take a truly giant star, say something 50 times more massive than our sun, then the nuclear reactions in its core can reach an absolutely insane pace. So much so, with the temperatures and densities so high, that particles can randomly decide to become bits of radiation instead (which is totally allowable by the rules of physics as long as you have enough energy). Now usually that radiation just converts back into particles and the star goes about its business. But in giant stars this can go unstable, with too much radiation being created too quickly.

When that happens, there aren't enough particles to support the core of the star. It's as if the rug gets pulled out from underneath it. The core of that giant star simply vanishes, and the rest of the star can't do anything but crash inwards at a good fraction of the speed of light.

What ensues is a chaotic, turbulent, energetic mess. The star collapses, releasing a flood of energy and radiation, a blast even bigger than a typical supernova. Or in other words, boom.

Or should I say...hyperboom?

Paul M. Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of How to Die in Space.

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