What is the Biggest Star in the Universe

What is the Biggest Star in the Universe

What's the Biggest Star in the Universe? This is a question that comes up in astronomy circles every once and a while. Well, it turns out that the Universe is a big place, and it’s possible that we may never know what the biggest star is. With this in mind, let’s refine the question a bit: what's the biggest star that we know of?

Before we jump straight to the answer, let's take a look at our own Sun for a sense of scale. Our familiar star is a mighty 1.4 million km across (870,000 miles). That's such a huge number that it's hard to get a sense of scale. The Sun accounts for 99.9% of all the matter in our Solar System. In fact, you could fit one million planet Earths inside the Sun.

Astronomers use the terms "solar radius" and "solar mass" to compare larger and smaller stars, so we'll do the same. A solar radius is 690,000 km (432,000 miles) and a solar mass is 2 x 10^30 kilograms (4.3 x 10^30 pounds). That's 2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg (or 4,300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 lbs.)

One huge, famous star in our galaxy is the monster Eta Carinae, located approximately 7,500 light years away, and weighing in at 100 solar masses. It's 4 million times as bright as the Sun. Most stars blow with a solar wind, losing mass over time. But Eta Carinae is so large that it casts off 500 times the mass of the Earth every year. With so much mass lost, it's very difficult for astronomers to accurately measure where the star ends, and its stellar wind begins.

So, the best answer astronomers have right now is that Eta Carinae's radius is 400 times the size of the Sun. And as star size estimates go, that's pretty accurate.

And one interesting side note: Eta Carinae should explode pretty soon in one of the most spectacular supernovae humans have ever seen.

But that's nothing. The largest known star is VY Canis Majoris; a red hypergiant star in the constellation Canis Major, located about 5,000 light-years from Earth. University of Minnesota professor Roberta Humphreys from the University of Minnesota calculated its upper size at more than 2,100 times the size of the Sun. Placed in our Solar System, its surface would extend out past the orbit of Saturn. Light takes more than 8 hours to cross its circumference!

Some astronomers disagree, and think that VY Canis Majoris might be smaller; merely 600 times the size of the Sun, extending past the orbit of Mars.

That's the biggest star that we know of, but the Milky way probably has dozens of stars that are even larger that we can’t see, obscured by gas and dust.

But let's see if we can work out the original question, what's the biggest star in the Universe? Obviously, it's impossible for us to actually find it - the Universe is a big place, and there's no way we can peer into every corner.

But according to theorists, how big can stars get?

According to Roberta Humphreys, the largest stars are the coolest. So even though Eta Carinae is the most luminous star we know of, it's extremely hot - 25,000 Kelvin - and so only a mere 400 solar radii.

The largest stars will be the cool super giants. For example, VY Canis Majoris is only 3,500 Kelvin. A really big star would be even cooler. At 3,000 Kelvin, a cool supergiant would be 2,600 times the size of the Sun.

That, she believes, is the largest possible star.

Want to learn more about the birth and death of stars? Check out this two-part podcast at Astronomy Cast. Here's part 1, Where Stars Come From, and here's part 2, How Stars Die.