London, November 28 (ANI): Europe's Herschel space telescope has observed the death throes of the biggest star known to science.
According to a report by BBC News, the observatory, launched in May this year, has subjected VY Canis Majoris, to a detailed spectroscopic analysis.
It has allowed Herschel to identify the different types of molecules and atoms that swirl away from the star, which is 30-40 times as massive as our Sun.
VY Canis Majoris is some 4,500 light-years from Earth and could explode as a supernova at any time.
The star, in the constellation Canis Major, has been recorded by astronomers for at least 200 years.
It is what is called a red hypergiant - a highly evolved object that is exhausting its nuclear fuel.
In its end days, it is spewing vast quantities of gas and dust into interstellar space, including elements such as carbon, oxygen and nitrogen - the raw materials that will go into the production of future planets, and, who knows, perhaps life elsewhere in the galaxy.
Herschel has trained the spectrometers in its Pacs and Spire instruments on the extensive cloud of material billowing away from the object.
Spectrometers capture and split light into its constituent wavelengths, creating a kind of "fingerprint" that will reveal information on the chemistry of a light source.
Pacs and Spire, for instance, detect copious amounts of carbon monoxide (CO) and water (H2O) in the vicinity of VY Canis Majoris.
According to Professor Matt Griffin, the Spire principal investigator from Cardiff University, UK, "From our CO lines, we can measure the temperature of the gas and by comparing them with other lines we can also measure density and optical depth and all kinds of other parameters."
"The other lines we're seeing in abundance in both Pacs and Spire spectra are water. Water is very important astrophysically because it is a diagnostic. It tells us a lot about the physical and chemical processes going on in a gas," he added.he Spire camera shows the star at the edge of a huge cloud of gas and dust.
Herschel studies like this should help to establish a detailed picture of the mass loss from stars and the complex chemistry occurring in their extended envelopes. (ANI)