Press Release

New type of star gives clues to mysterious origin of magnetars

17 August 2023

Magnetars are the strongest magnets in the Universe. These super-dense dead stars with ultra-strong magnetic fields can be found all over our galaxy but astronomers don’t know exactly how they form. Now, using multiple telescopes around the world, including European Southern Observatory (ESO) facilities, researchers have uncovered a living star that is likely to become a magnetar. This finding marks the discovery of a new type of astronomical object — massive magnetic helium stars — and sheds light on the origin of magnetars.

Despite having been observed for over 100 years, the enigmatic nature of the star HD 45166 could not be easily explained by conventional models, and little was known about it beyond the fact that it is one of a pair of stars [1], is rich in helium and is a few times more massive than our Sun.

This star became a bit of an obsession of mine,” says Tomer Shenar, the lead author of a study on this object published today in Science and an astronomer at the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. “Tomer and I refer to HD 45166 as the ‘zombie star,” says co-author and ESO astronomer Julia Bodensteiner, based in Germany. “This is not only because this star is so unique, but also because I jokingly said that it turns Tomer into a zombie."

Having studied similar helium-rich stars before, Shenar thought magnetic fields could crack the case. Indeed, magnetic fields are known to influence the behaviour of stars and could explain why traditional models failed to describe HD 45166, which is located about 3000 light-years away in the constellation Monoceros. “I remember having a Eureka moment while reading the literature: ‘What if the star is magnetic?’,” says Shenar, who is currently based at the Centre for Astrobiology in Madrid, Spain.

Shenar and his team set out to study the star using multiple facilities around the globe. The main observations were conducted in February 2022 using an instrument on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope that can detect and measure magnetic fields. The team also relied on key archive data taken with the Fiber-fed Extended Range Optical Spectrograph (FEROS) at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Once the observations were in, Shenar asked co-author Gregg Wade, an expert on magnetic fields in stars at the Royal Military College of Canada, to examine the data. Wade’s response confirmed Shenar’s hunch: “Well my friend, whatever this thing is — it is definitely magnetic.

Shenar's team had found that the star has an incredibly strong magnetic field, of 43 000 gauss, making HD 45166 the most magnetic massive star found to date [2]. “The entire surface of the helium star has a magnetic field almost 100,000 times stronger than Earth's,” explains co-author Pablo Marchant, an astronomer at KU Leuven’s Institute of Astronomy in Belgium [see edit]. 

This observation marks the discovery of the very first massive magnetic helium star. “It is exciting to uncover a new type of astronomical object,” says Shenar, ”especially when it’s been hiding in plain sight all along.

Moreover, it provides clues to the origin of magnetars, compact dead stars laced with magnetic fields at least a billion times stronger than the one in HD 45166. The team’s calculations suggest that this star will end its life as a magnetar. As it collapses under its own gravity, its magnetic field will strengthen, and the star will eventually become a very compact core with a magnetic field of around 100 trillion gauss [3] — the most powerful type of magnet in the Universe.

Shenar and his team also found that HD 45166 has a mass smaller than previously reported, around twice the mass of the Sun, and that its stellar pair orbits at a far larger distance than believed before. Furthermore, their research indicates that HD 45166 formed through the merger of two smaller helium-rich stars. “Our findings completely reshape our understanding of HD 45166,” concludes Bodensteiner.

Edit [17 August]: the quote by Pablo Marchant was changed since a unit conversion mistake led to the previous version being incorrect.


[1] While HD 45166 is a binary system, in this text HD 45166 refers to the helium-rich star, not to both stars.

[2] The magnetic field of 43 000 gauss is the strongest magnetic field ever detected in a star that exceeds the Chandrasekhar mass limit, which is the critical limit above which stars may collapse into neutron stars (magnetars are a type of neutron star).

[3] In this text, a billion refers to one followed by nine zeros and a trillion refers to one followed by 12 zeros.

More information

This research was presented in a paper to appear in Science (doi:

The team is composed of Tomer Shenar (Anton Pannekoek Institute for Astronomy, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands [API], now at the Centre for Astrobiology, Madrid, Spain), Gregg Wade (Department of Physics and Space Science, Royal Military College of Canada, Canada), Pablo Marchant (Institute of Astronomy, KU Leuven, Belgium [KU Leuven]), Stefano Bagnulo (Armagh Observatory & Planetarium, UK), Julia Bodensteiner (European Southern Observatory, Garching, Germany; KU Leuven), Dominic M. Bowman (KU Leuven), Avishai Gilkis (The School of Physics and Astronomy, Tel Aviv University, Israel), Norbert Langer (Argelander-Institut für Astronomie, Universitӓt Bonn, Germany; Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Bonn, Germany), André Nicolas-Chené (National Science Foundation’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory, Hawai‘i), Lidia Oskinova (Institut für Physik und Astronomie, Universitӓt Potsdam, Germany [Potsdam]), Timothy Van Reeth (KU Leuven), Hugues Sana (KU Leuven), Nicole St-Louis (Département de physique, Université de Montréal, Complexe des sciences, Canada), Alexandre Soares de Oliveira (Institute of Research and Development, Universidade do Vale do Paraíba, São José dos Campos, Brazil), Helge Todt (Potsdam) and Silvia Toonen (API).

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) enables scientists worldwide to discover the secrets of the Universe for the benefit of all. We design, build and operate world-class observatories on the ground — which astronomers use to tackle exciting questions and spread the fascination of astronomy — and promote international collaboration for astronomy. Established as an intergovernmental organisation in 1962, today ESO is supported by 16 Member States (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom), along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a Strategic Partner. ESO’s headquarters and its visitor centre and planetarium, the ESO Supernova, are located close to Munich in Germany, while the Chilean Atacama Desert, a marvellous place with unique conditions to observe the sky, hosts our telescopes. ESO operates three observing sites: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its Very Large Telescope Interferometer, as well as survey telescopes such as VISTA. Also at Paranal ESO will host and operate the Cherenkov Telescope Array South, the world’s largest and most sensitive gamma-ray observatory. Together with international partners, ESO operates ALMA on Chajnantor, a facility that observes the skies in the millimetre and submillimetre range. At Cerro Armazones, near Paranal, we are building “the world’s biggest eye on the sky” — ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope. From our offices in Santiago, Chile we support our operations in the country and engage with Chilean partners and society. 

The Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) is located on Maunakea, land of the Kānaka Maoli people, and a mountain of considerable cultural, natural, and ecological significance to the Native Hawaiian people.



Tomer Shenar
University of Amsterdam and Centre for Astrobiology
Amsterdam and Madrid, the Netherlands and Spain

Julia Bodensteiner
European Southern Observatory
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49-89-3200-6409

Gregg Wade
Royal Military College of Canada
Tel: +1 613 541-6000 ext 6419

Pablo Marchant
Institute of Astronomy, KU Leuven
Leuven, Belgium
Tel: +32 16 33 05 47

Lida Oskinova
Institute for Physics and Astronomy, University of Potsdam
Potsdam, Germany
Tel: +49 331 977 5910

Bárbara Ferreira
ESO Media Manager
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6670
Cell: +49 151 241 664 00

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About the Release

Release No.:eso2313
Name:HD 45166
Type:Milky Way : Star : Evolutionary Stage : Neutron Star : Magnetar
Facility:ESO 1.52-metre telescope


A dynamic blue sphere, the massive star, is at the centre of this image, with powerful blue magnetic field lines all around it. The field lines look wispy and fine but are densely packed, especially near the star itself. The lines shoot out of the surface of the star, especially at the poles, and curl back around on themselves in closed loops that end on the other side of the star's equator. Some do this close to the star in tightly wound loops, while others extend out to the edge of the frame, looping back in long arcs.
Artist’s impression of HD 45166, the star that might become a magnetar


New type of star gives clues to magnetars' origins (ESOcast 264 Light)
New type of star gives clues to magnetars' origins (ESOcast 264 Light)
Artist’s animation of HD 45166, the most magnetic massive star ever found
Artist’s animation of HD 45166, the most magnetic massive star ever found