NASA says star burns with light of 3.2 million suns

Peony nebula

Sometimes you have to settle for second place. NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope this week spotted an unbelievably bright star in our Milky Way galaxy that may ultimately be the brightest star ever discovered.

While the newly visualized star, dubbed the "Peony nebula," burns with the light of an estimated 3.2 million suns it comes in a distant second to the Eta Carina star which flames in with a whopping solar wattage of 4.7 million suns, NASA said.

Scientists knew about the Peony nebula star, but because of its sheltered and cloudy location toward the center of the galaxy its extreme luminosity was not revealed until now. Spitzer's dust-piercing infrared eyes can now see into regions impenetrable by visible light. Likewise, infrared data from the European Southern Observatory's New Technology Telescope in Chile were integral in calculating the Peony nebula star's luminosity.

"The Peony nebula star is a fascinating creature. It appears to be the second-brightest star that we now know of in the galaxy, and it's located deep into the galaxy's center," said Lidia Oskinova of Potsdam University in Germany in a release. "There are probably other stars just as bright if not brighter in our galaxy that remain hidden from view."

Astronomers estimate the Peony nebula star kicked off its life with a hefty mass of roughly 150 to 200 times that of and a girth 100 times our sun, NASA said. In other words if placed where our sun is, Peony would extend out to about the orbit of Mercury, NASA said

Stars this massive are rare and a bit of a mystery because they push the limits required for stars to form, NASA states. Theory predicts that if a star starts out too big, it will break into a double or multiple stars instead.  With so much mass, the star barely keeps itself together. It sheds an enormous amount of stellar matter in the form of strong winds over its relatively short lifetime of a few million years. This matter is pushed so hard by strong radiation from the star that the winds speed up to about 1.6 million kilometers per hour (one million miles per hour) in only a few hours, NASA states.

Ultimately, the Peony nebula star will blow up in a fantastic explosion of cosmic proportions called a supernova. Oskinova said the star is ripe for exploding soon, which in astronomical terms mean anytime from now to millions of years from now.

For awhile last year the Sun was no longer the largest visible object in our solar system. The Holmes comet has a larger gas and dust cloud known as the coma, and consequently it has a larger diameter than the sun according to astronomers at the University of Hawaii. The Holmes coma's diameter on Nov. 9 was 869,900 miles based on measurements by the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy. The sun's diameter, stated differently by various sources, is about 864,900 miles.

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