How big is the largest known star? Compared to planets, stars will always be the overall group winners in terms of superior size. When you look at the night sky on a clear night and away from city lights, you will see that there are stars of varying sizes and brightnesses, some of which are sure to outsize even our own Sun. What your observations will not tell you is just how much bigger than the Sun some recently-discovered stars are. However before we can truly appreciate the size of other stars in the Universe, we need to have an understanding of the staggering scale at which our own nearest star stands within our Solar System.

Image of Sun and Planets

Earth compared to the Sun: the Earth’s diameter is 12756 km across, but the Sun’s diameter is 110 times this figure. At 1 400 000 km across approximately 1 million Earths would fit inside it. In fact, the Sun is so big that its mass makes up more than 98% of the ‘stuff’ in our Solar System! (Image credit: original image Lsmpascal via Wikimedia Commons)

 

The Sun, despite its actual size, can appear small in our sky but is a massive 150 million km (93 000 000 miles) away.

Stars have been forming for billions of years. Countless have died, many exist as we speak, and no doubt millions are yet to be born in the future. One of the key factors that a star’s size will depend on is what stage of its life it is at. Converting hydrogen into helium and releasing energy as a by-product is what stars do for the majority of their lives. This phase is called a star’s ’main sequence’, from its childhood right up until middle-age. But the final stages of a star’s life are different; most stars will radically change in size and appearance, suddenly swelling and getting larger in old age. An average-sized star becomes a bloated red giant. Larger still stars in their final life phases expand to become red supergiant stars.

image of m80

This picture shows stars just beneath the M80 globular cluster (NGC 6093) in the Milky Way galaxy. Most of the stars are older than our Sun (at about 15 billion years old), and a few are heavier. The most developed stars – red giants are the easiest to spot compared to the rest, due to their larger size and orangey appearance. (Image credit: NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team, STScI, AURA)

 

So the biggest stars currently in the Universe are those who were born big but have also matured and reached old age. However beyond a supergiant star there is bigger still. Compared to the numerous other stars in the night sky these special stars, known as hypergiants, are few in number and very far away. This is why what we know about them and what they will do in the future remains limited as astronomers get few opportunities to study them.

So what do we know about hypergiants? Just like all the other stars in the Universe, these huge stars can vary in size and colour. Of the very few discovered hypergiants, they fall into three main colour categories: blue, yellow, and red. A couple of characteristics can be recognised in all of them however. Firstly they are all very hot (at least within their cores), and are very luminous. Astrophysicists agree that the bigger the star’s mass, the greater the pressure and temperature within the star.  From this it follows that the most massive stars are the most powerful. With the greatest pressures in their cores they will produce the most helium at the fastest rate, giving off the most heat and light hence these gigantic stars live much shorter lives than smaller stars, like our Sun. Hypergiants live life fast and furious, whereas dimmer dwarf stars like the Sun have a much steadier and sedate existence. While the largest of the stars will only live millions of years, our Sun will most likely continue to live for billions of years yet.

image of pistol star

A blue hypergiant, the Pistol Star in the Milky Way galaxy. Although hidden from the human eye behind thick layers of space dust, the Hubble telescope’s infrared camera captured this image solely using the star’s radiated heat. Most of the gas in the surrounding nebula (imaged magenta in infra-red) is thought to have been ejected from the mass of the Pistol Star. (Image credit: NASA)

 

As these stars are burning up vast quantities of hydrogen fuel at such a great rate, they are unstable and violent, and spew out much of their contents into space in great stellar winds.  The quantity of starry material fired into space in a hypergiant’s solar wind can actually be so great that it can obscure its true shape when observed from hundreds of light years away. Hypergiants also tend to have extended atmospheres reaching far into space, this and the fact that some of the more unstable appear to pulsate and alter in brightness makes measuring these space monsters to a high degree of accuracy rather difficult.

The ‘most massive’ star actually means something quite different from the term ‘largest star’. If stars could be placed on some stellar weighing pan, the most massive star will be the heaviest measured, while the largest will be the widest measured in kilometres or miles.

image  of r136a1

R136a1’s surface temperature stands at an estimated 53 000 K. (Image credit: ESO/P. Crowther/C.J. Evans)

 

Firstly, what is the most massive star?  The answer is R136a1, which can be seen as the biggest and brightest star at the centre of a large cluster of stars in the Tarantula Nebula, in the constellation of Dorado.  This cosmic kingpin weighs in at an impressive 265 solar masses. In other words it has 265 times the amount of ‘star stuff’ inside it than our Sun.  When discovered in 2010 this blue hypergiant star broke the (then) accepted laws of science. Its calculated mass was twice what astronomers thought was possible for a star to be! This star also holds another significant record. As the heaviest star, that added weight means its contents must be under even greater pressure at its core. That excess energy overflow from the nuclear fusion reaction within R136a1 means that more energy pours out from it into outer space in the form of heat and light than from any other known star. In other words, R136a1 is the most luminous star known.

Secondly, what is the largest known star in outer space, in terms of volume?

R Doradus: With a maximum variable magnitude of 4.8 this star should be discernible to the naked eye in the southern hemisphere, however infrared imaging reveals it to actually be an extremely bright star 6500 times more luminous than the one sustaining our Solar System. (Image credit: Cropped image: ESO/Nick Parke)

R Doradus: With a maximum variable magnitude of 4.8 this star should be discernible to the naked eye in the southern hemisphere, however infrared imaging reveals it to actually be an extremely bright star 6500 times more luminous than the one sustaining our Solar System. (Image credit: Cropped image: ESO/Nick Parke)

 

Before we answer this question we also need to remove one other possible obstacle from our comprehension. Are we supposing that the largest star in space will be one that ‘looks’ like the biggest in the sky? The answer of course is no. We already know that there are hugely varying distances between all of the stars we can observe from Earth and so stars in a closer proximity to our Solar System have the unfair advantage of ‘looking big’ compared to those that are millions of light years away. If however for a moment we imagined that the stars were all the same distance from our planet on Earth’s celestial sphere, our search for the largest star would end with the star R Dorado. This red giant star, found in the southern hemisphere constellation of Dorado, the ‘Dolphinfish’, appears to have the biggest stellar disk in the sky (after only the Sun). So while the truly greatest star in space still quietly lurks out there somewhere, R Dorado’s admittedly substantial presence of 370 solar radii and its prominent stellar pedestal of just 178 light years from Earth enable it to successfully masquerade as the largest star to the ground-based observer.

Star types from left to right: a red dwarf, our Sun, a blue dwarf, and R136a1 (hypergiant). Where star sizes are measured by radius, from centre to surface, and where 1 solar radius is equal to that of our Sun (km) - R136a1’s radius is 35.4 times greater than the Sun [approximately 24.8 million km].  Credit:  Author:  ESO/M. Kornmesser

Star types from left to right: a red dwarf, our Sun, a blue dwarf, and R136a1 (hypergiant). Where star sizes are measured by radius, from centre to surface, and where 1 solar radius is equal to that of our Sun (km) – R136a1’s radius is 35.4 times greater than the Sun (approximately 24.8 million km). (Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser)

So finally, what is the star with the greatest volume, the greatest equatorial circumference, the one that currently holds the title of largest known star in the Universe? The answer is NML Cygni, also known as V*V1489Cyg, a variable red hypergiant which can be found in the constellation Cygnus the swan. Discovered in 1965 by Neugebauer, Martz and Leighton (hence its name), this super-colossus, 25-50 times as heavy as our Sun, squeezes in to the red corner of the cosmos about 5300 light years away with its staggering girth of 1639-1650 solar radii! That is around 1.2 billion km (720 million miles), were this star to replace the Sun at our Solar System’s centre, it would engulf Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and even Jupiter, with its scorching surface looming ominously at Saturn! Furthermore, just for the record, this cosmic super-sphere’s diameter also outmatches that of its closest stellar rival in space, WOH G64, by at least 70 million km.

Within the target in our closest massive star cluster, the OB2 Association, is a brownish circumstellar aura: An optically thin non-uniform double envelope of dust and molecules attempts to keep the majestic splendor of the Universe’s stellar premier hidden from view. This and V*V1489Cyg’s apparent magnitude of 16.6, much too far beneath the +6 minimum brightness required for naked-eye terrestrial detection, ensure that only the largest of telescopes are permitted a glimpse. (Image credit: Composite/cropped image: (L) Simbad (CDS)/ (R) Copyright: Astrophysical Journal, 699:1423-1432, 2009 July 10/Nick Parke).

Within the target in our closest massive star cluster, the OB2 Association, is a brownish circumstellar aura: An optically thin non-uniform double envelope of dust and molecules attempts to keep the majestic splendor of the Universe’s stellar premier hidden from view. This and V*V1489Cyg’s apparent magnitude of 16.6, much too far beneath the +6 minimum brightness required for naked-eye terrestrial detection, ensure that only the largest of telescopes are permitted a glimpse. (Image credit: Composite/cropped image: (L) Simbad (CDS)/ (R) Copyright: Astrophysical Journal, 699:1423-1432, 2009 July 10/Nick Parke).

 

Although a red hypergiant can have a surface temperature as low as 3 500 K, much cooler than its blue and yellow siblings, crimson-coloured NML Cygni is one of the most luminous red stars of its class. If average-sized stars and supergiants give any indication: after the stellar fuel is expended and total inner collapse – we might be talking about a ‘hypernova’, a cataclysmic explosion of such deadly power that gamma rays would damage its own galaxy and irradiate all cellular life for light years around it. Just like so many other aspects of the life of hypergiants, their inevitable deaths remain shrouded in mystery. While some astronomers think NML Cygni’s demise will be within the next hundred thousand years, with one of the highest mass-loss-rates-per-year known, a symptom of stellar instability, others think it could be sooner.Two facts are clear however, as the story of the Universe generally rewards us with a supernova once every 50 years… and as the largest star currently has a very temperamental personality, we may not be disappointed!

NB this popular article was substantially revised on 22 July 2013 to reflect the latest discoveries.)

(Article by Nick Parke, Education Support Officer)


24 Comments

ebenezer · April 27, 2016 at 12:25

so the sun isn’t the biggest star…its still growing…does that mean when the sun reaches its old age the earth,mecury,venus,and mars could be consumed

Dave Isaacs · April 6, 2016 at 17:54

From the unexplainable energy with drives the tiniest particles around atoms to the immense gravity emitted from super massive black holes which turns unfathomable sized galaxies the only thing for sure we know is that we don’t really know that much.

JOHN MICHAEL CONSTANTINO · February 18, 2016 at 08:06

My dream is to be star known as mu cephie like star some day even my gardian angel tell me satan or allah will make me mu cehpie if I die someday but after all they tell I’m crusifide as a star for millions or billions of years feeling the heat of mu cephie so I need questions

miss:z.laiza · October 27, 2015 at 00:33

Wow.!so nice.and i want to be a astronomer someday…

Ibukun · February 22, 2015 at 18:30

Am very impressed with this research, it shows the Greatness of GOD. If the space is so vast to have gingatic Stars, then what can we say about our GOD the Indescribable GOD. Then who are we tiny in the mist of space, to compare and shoulder rub GOD. Some say there is no GOD. Can we imagine such unreasonable thing. GOD have mercy.

    Liam · November 24, 2015 at 22:19

    No

wedemboys · November 21, 2014 at 15:13

cool

Dan · August 1, 2014 at 14:00

I´ve allway wondered (and perhaps someone here could explain it):
If R136a1 is the most massive star yet known, but not the largest (by volume) because it is on its early stages of stellar life (“main sequence”), how big could we estimate it to be when it reaches its final stage? By then, would it be a red hypergiant?
Thanks!

Jason Mensah · July 9, 2014 at 17:53

Ohhh Jehovah God is very very very very very very very woooooooooonderful

Lalla-Jean Burling · May 11, 2014 at 10:07

A wise man once wrote 1000’s of year ago before telescopes
And the hubble where even thought of.
“Raise your eyes high up and see.Who created
Created these things? It is the One who is bringing
Forth the army of them even by number, all of whom
He calls even by name. Due to the abundance of
dynamic energy, he also being vigorous in power,
not one of them is missing.”
Amazing created organization?….or big bang Blowup?
.Interestingly energy. =matter.
Every house, car, watch has a builder. Yet this awesome
precise universe got there by chance.. mmmm food for thought:-)

luambo · June 25, 2013 at 23:48

Im so interested in space, what i learn is unbelievable, stars are very far away from us, they apear to be small but they are the biggest so amazing, i wish i could travel around stars

suman · May 16, 2013 at 10:43

I like this article. I want to learn more about this kind of Astro Physics matters.

micco · March 16, 2013 at 14:21

I Want @ become a Astro nomer

micco · March 16, 2013 at 14:20

wow

Lizzen · February 7, 2013 at 00:12

My sister thinks the moon is bigger than the earth and that the sun is the largest star! She is so stupid!

Nick Parke · December 19, 2012 at 23:10

Thanks for your comments and thank you for bringing this fact to my attention. You are quite right! It would indeed appear that since I wrote this article some months back some astronomical recalculations have been made. Improved measurements of VY Canis Majoris’ extended corona now have it at 1420 solar radii (instead of the estimated 1800-2100), in effect bumping it down the league table to 7th place. The red supergiant NML Cygni therefore now takes the title of ‘largest known star’ with a current measurement of 1650 solar radii. (R136a1 remains the most massive.) However as we can never be 100% certain of the exact distances across hundreds of light years to the largest stars, added to the fact that they tend to pulsate AND that they can eject much of their mass into Space over a few months, who can say what we will know even a few years from now! This is of course a classic example of what inspires us all about Space… the prospect of new discoveries tomorrow, perhaps giving us enough pieces of the stellar jigsaw that one day we all may be able to more clearly see and interpret the truly awesome gargantuan cosmic picture that is our Universe.

Necc · December 19, 2012 at 13:26

Absolutely astonishing.
No matter what we believe or understood, the truth is that the universe is the last frontier of our knowledge and imagination. Despites many people do not believe God’s criation, how can we stand skeptical in front of so perfect laws and organization. This is so beautiful.
By the way, I thought NML Cygni (at least on radius size) was te biggest star known in the universe?
Thank you for this blog

    Helio · July 6, 2013 at 16:42

    Actually it is NML Cygni, this info is just outdated.

Bliss · November 30, 2012 at 06:46

I learnt alot about the types of stars nd their various sizes

rhoven mahusay · November 29, 2012 at 07:26

magnificient………………

    alvin · November 26, 2013 at 23:48

    always want and believe it !!!!!

aderika · October 31, 2012 at 09:04

wooowww amazinggg……….

    Daduspitia1234567890 · March 29, 2015 at 09:15

    Yeah, and there is a bigger star. UY Scuti the largest star ever discovered 1,708 solar radii. Wow.

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