That unstoppable R136a1 fever
Catching some star dust: George Observatory gets a boost from discovery of theuniverse's largest star too
The sun is officially lame thanks to astrophysicist Paul Crowther from the University of Sheffield in northern England. Crowther recently discovered (he thinks) the universe's largest star using a very large telescope.
The Very Large Telescope — which is the official name of the scientific instrument, only solidifying scientists' creativity or lack thereof — discovered the star around 165,000 light years away from earth's Milky Way. Much like the name of the telescope, the name of the star is pretty uninspired — R136a1.
Located in Chile, Very Large Telescope (aka the biggest eye in the sky) was outfitted with highly advanced infrared technology that allowed the scientist to locate R136a1 in the Tarantula Nebula. It's considered to be a bigger than a blue dwarf and a yellow dwarf, which is generally considered what the sun is.
Of course with any scientific discovery there will be haters. Some scientists believe that R136a1 is actually two stars that overlap one another from the telescope's perspective, giving scientists the reason to belive that it is one gigantic star. Mark Krumholz, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz told the NY Daily News that "What they're characterizing as a single massive star could in fact be a binary system too close to be resolved."
CultureMap asked the Houston Museum of Natural Science's George Observatory staff astronomer, Barbara Wilson, whether she agrees with the new discovery.
"I have no way of knowing until I receive more data," Wilson says. "Tarantula Nebula is a star forming region, visible in the Southern Hemisphere. And it's a very crowded star field. The University of Arizona cautioned that the star's weight had been inferred using scientific models and that those were subject to change."
How big of a deal is this possible new discovery?
"It's pretty big," Wilson says. "Anytime that you say you found the most massive star known, it's really a neat thing. But every discovery is open to scrutiny, every hypothesis is open to scrutiny. They haven't weighed it with the normal method of weighing a star. It will be pretty cool if it turns out to be real."
Will this new discovery bring newcomers to the field?
"I think any new discovery in astrology brings people to the observatory because we give lectures on Saturday night to the public on various aspects of astronomy," Wilson says. "People could ask astronomers a question. We get a lot of interest and I think there is a lot of interest in astronomy. Especially on a clear night."
Located about an hour south of downtown Houston in Brazos Bend State Park, the George Observatory can be a haul, but that doesn't stop people turning out for the observatory's open Saturdays. For $5 per person, anyone can go look through the telescopes on Saturday nights with the gates opening at 3 p.m. Most visitors still come for the typical sights. The most powerful draw continues to be the planets.
"People always want to see the planets because they are close and people have heard about them their whole lives," Wilson says. "So I think the planets are always a big draw."
R136a1 is still not viewable from Houston — no matter how advanced the equipment — because the Bayou City is above the equator. But, Wilson says, "The Tarantula Nebula is one of the most amazing sites that you can see with your bare eye if you go to the southern hemisphere because you could actually look up at the sky and see the Tarantula Nebula."
Crowther's son asked him to name the brightest and hottest star in the universe after him. His dad decided not to — what a jerk.
I am sure it's going to become an even bigger tension when the young Crowther is a teenager. I can see it now .... "I could have been a staar."