Exciting Message from a Dying Monster Star

SEST Discovers First Extra-galactic SiO Maser

6. März 1996

With the help of a new and more sensitive receiver, recently installed on the 15-metre Swedish-ESO Submillimetre Telescope (SEST) at the European Southern Observatory on the La Silla mountain in Chile, a team of European astronomers [1] has succeeded in discovering the first extra-galactic silicon-monoxide (SiO) maser . It is located in the atmosphere of the largest known star in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to the Milky Way. This observational feat now opens new, exciting possibilities for the study of individual stars in other galaxies in the Local Group. The continued search for extra-galactic SiO masers is a joint project of European and Australian astronomers, to be carried on with even more advanced instruments that will become available in the near future.

What is a maser ?

The fact that masers exist in the Universe is one of the most unexpected discoveries made by astronomers in this century. They function according to the same principles as the better known lasers.

Lasers (Light Amplified Stimulated Emission Radiators) are becoming more and more common in our daily life, for instance to read discs in CD players and to cut steel plates. Inside a laser, molecules act as an enormously powerful amplifier for light of a specific wavelength (`colour') [2]. However, this only happens when we subject the molecules to special conditions, much unlike those they would normally experience in nature.

Nevertheless, exotic places do exist in the Universe where conditions are similar to those in lasers. In the 1960s, astronomers discovered that some celestial objects emit abnormally strong radio waves at a particular wavelength. In the beginning, they thought that this emission was coming from an unknown molecule they called `Mysterium'. Later it turned out that it originated in already known, and rather ordinary, OH-molecules of oxygen and hydrogen. In some places in space, these molecules experience the same conditions as in lasers.

However, the emission that is amplified in this case is not visible light as in lasers, but rather microwave radiation [3]. They are therefore known under the name masers or Microwave Amplified Stimulated Emission Radiators. This radiation is not visible to the human eye or optical astronomical detectors, but must be captured with astronomical radio telescopes.

Later, silicon-monoxide (SiO) masers were discovered in which the molecules that amplify the microwave emission are made up of equal proportions of silicon (Si) and oxygen (O).

The discovery of the first extra-galactic SiO maser

In May 1995, new state-of-the-art receivers were installed on the Swedish-ESO Submillimetre Telescope (SEST), a radio dish measuring 15 metres across at the ESO La Silla Observatory in Chile. The great technical improvement of the receivers and the excellent quality of this observing site and of the telescope itself make it one of the world's most powerful instruments for this type of research. And indeed, immediately after the installation of the new receivers, the first observations bore fruit.

The astronomers decided to look with the telescope at the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a satellite galaxy to the Milky Way galaxy in which we live. On a dark night in the Southern Hemisphere, one can easily spot the LMC with the naked eye as a little `cloud', seen in the direction of the southern constellation of Doradus (The Goldfish). Although much smaller than the Milky Way, it still contains many millions of stars.

The astronomers chose to observe the largest known star in the LMC and they registered its microwave radiation for no less than 26 hours. Most of the observing was done during daytime, which is possible with this type of instrument: at microwave wavelengths, the sky appears dark even during the day.

The astronomers were delighted to see the star shining at microwave wavelengths, cf. eso9616a. The measured wavelength leaves no doubt that this is radiation from a SiO maser in the atmosphere of the star. If it would not have been a maser, it would have been far too weak to have been detected. Although we know several hundred masers of this type in the Milky Way, this is the first discovery of a SiO maser in another galaxy than our own. Since then, the observations have been continued in collaboration with Australian astronomers, using radio telescopes at Parkes and Mopra on that continent.

A most unusual star

When Swedish astronomer Bengt Westerlund and his colleagues first observed this LMC maser star in 1981 with optical telescopes, they thought that it was a rather normal, cool and not particularly bright star. However, a few years later, the Dutch-British-USA InfraRed Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) revealed its true nature. The IRAS measurements showed that the star radiates most of its light in the form of infrared radiation [4], making it one of the most powerful stars in the LMC; in fact, it emits about half a million times more energy than the Sun. On this occasion, it was given the designation IRAS 04553-6825, the number indicating its position in the sky.

IRAS 04553-6825 is unusual in other ways. It is some fifty times as heavy as our Sun, and it is the biggest known star in the LMC: if it were to take the place of our Sun, it would fill the solar system out to the planet Neptune, thirty times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. It is rather cool when compared to other stars - although it still has a temperature of about 2,000 C - and it therefore has a very red colour [5]. This Press Release is accompanied by eso9615a which demonstrates that while the star is hardly visible in blue light, it shines brightly in red and infrared light.

Stars like IRAS 04553-6825 are known as red supergiants. It has been unofficially dubbed `The Monster', and having reached the end of a short and hectic life, it is now dying. The nuclear reactions deep inside are undergoing important changes at an ever-increasing rate and in the course of this process the star has swollen to its present, enormous size.

Moreover, IRAS 04553-6825 is now blowing away its atmosphere. It loses material at a prodigious rate: each month, the equivalent of one Earth mass disappears into the surrounding space, at velocities of up to 25 kilometers per second. Were the mass-loss to continue in this way, the star would soon evaporate completely.

It may never get that far, though. There is little doubt that, much before, it will end its life by exploding as a bright supernova. In February 1987, another star in the LMC exploded as a supernova, becoming as bright as the combined light of all the stars in the entire LMC. In fact, IRAS 04553-6825 might already have exploded some time ago, but due to the finite velocity of light - it takes the light 170,000 years to travel the distance from the LMC to us - the message about its fiery death may not have reached us yet. Our Sun is not expected to die this way; the death as a brilliant supernova is reserved for much heavier stars.

Stellar dust and the existence of life

Billions of years ago, the silicate-rich minerals that now make up most of the rocks and sand on Earth surrounded another dying star, similar to IRAS 04553-6825 . These minerals contain the silicon-oxide molecules which were then illuminated by the light of the red supergiant star and had shone brightly as SiO masers before they condensed into dust and were blown away into space. After many millions, perhaps even billions of years, they finally ended up in the rocks of planet Earth.

Not only rocks and sand, but all things we use in daily life ultimately owe their existence to stars like IRAS 04553-6825, ranging from the food we eat to the air we breathe, from the bicycle we drive to the brain in our head. This is because massive stars such as IRAS 04553-6825 produce heavy elements like oxygen, iron and carbon. We consist of these elements, and almost everything we use is made up of these elements as well.

IRAS 04553-6825 is now blowing away matter from its atmosphere and thereby enriches the Universe with heavy elements. The outflowing gas gradually cools, and at a certain distance from the star it begins to condense into dust grains, a process that resembles the formation of droplets in clouds in the Earth's atmosphere. In particular, the SiO molecules in the atmosphere end up in dust grains in this way. The gas and dust expelled by IRAS 04553-6825 is then mixed with the material in the space between the stars. From this material, new stars form. Around some of these young stars planets will form. It is not excluded that some of these planets may be similar to the Earth, and may even harbour life.

On the accompanying eso9615a, we see huge nebulae near the maser star; they are interstellar gas clouds that shine by the light of the embedded stars. IRAS 04553-6825 was born a few million years ago of the material in one of these nebulae. Now the rapidly outflowing material from this star (the stellar wind) is mixing with the gas cloud. This may trigger the formation of new stars a bit further away in the brightest parts of the nebulae.

Dying stars like IRAS 04553-6825 are the main factories of dust in the Universe. It is an interesting thought that without these stars, there would be no dust. Without dust, there would be no planets. Without planets, there would be no life. We therefore owe our very existence to the mass-loss from these big, cool, dying stars.

What does the study of SiO masers tell us?

We do not yet fully understand the processes by which a star like IRAS 04553-6825 loses its material into space. The mechanism that is responsible for the mass loss must be active near the surface of the star. However, mass-losing stars are very difficult to observe in visible light, because they quickly become obscured by the dust forming in their own stellar wind. Blue and yellow light is more absorbed than red light and therefore penetrates less through this dust. The absorbed energy is re-radiated by the dust as infrared radiation; this is why IRAS 04553-6825 shines so brightly in the infrared spectral region, resulting in its detection by IRAS.

SiO maser radiation originates from close to the stellar surface, where the matter is being ejected by the star. The maser radiation is intense, and we can observe it because the surrounding dust is nearly transparent at microwave wavelengths. By observing the SiO maser radiation we can therefore study how the star expels its material.

SiO masers emit the amplified radiation at a specific wavelength. However, if the molecules are moving towards us or away from us, we receive this radiation at a slightly different wavelength. This is the usual Doppler effect, analogous to the change in sound pitch you hear when a train or an ambulance approaches and then recedes. By measuring very accurately the wavelength of a SiO maser, it is therefore possible to determine with high precision the velocity of the material.

With modern instruments, an accuracy of about 100 metres per second may be reached. This may not seem very much, but there are no other methods to measure the velocity in a star inside a dense dust cloud with such a precision. Moreover, when compared with the velocity of the outflowing material - typically between one and thirty kilometres per second - this accuracy is still quite sufficient to study the motion of the material close to the stellar surface in great detail.

Future observations

In the future, the 26-hour observation of the first extra-galactic SiO maser is expected to be followed by the discovery of many other SiO masers in galaxies in the Local Group, especially as the instrumentation continues to improve. By combining several telescopes into an array, the observational limit may be pushed to stars at a distance of about 2 million light-years, i.e. just about to the distance of the Andromeda nebula, a galaxy that is similar to the Milky Way. Plans for this are being elaborated in Australia with the Australia Telescope (a combination of many single radio telescopes like at Mopra), as well as within ESO.

When more SiO masers in the LMC will have been discovered, we will be able to study how the mass loss differs from star to star. This will help us to learn how the mass loss depends on the overall characteristics of the star, for instance its brightness or its mass.

Strangely enough, it is easier to do this type of study with stars in another galaxy, despite the fact that they are much more distant than the maser stars in the Milky Way. The main reason is that it is very difficult to measure distances to individual stars in our own galaxy. And if the distance to a star is not known, many other characteristics of the star will not be known either, e.g. its total energy production (intrinsic brightness) or its mass. However, as we know the distance to the LMC, about 170,000 light-years, we also know the distance to all the maser stars, which will be detected in this small galaxy.

SiO masers are extremely powerful velocity indicators for celestial objects. We can therefore use them, not only to measure the motion of the molecules in the atmospheres of stars, but also to measure the velocities of the stars themselves. A study of the velocities of many SiO masers in the Milky Way indicates how the stars move through our galaxy. From this we gain a better understanding of how the Milky Way was formed; this is one of the great mysteries present-day astronomers are very eager to solve. And in the future, we may extend this type of study to other nearby galaxies.

There is indeed a great potential for important new knowledge in this exciting area of modern astronomical research!


[1] The team consists of Jacco Th. van Loon and Albert A. Zijlstra (ESO/Garching), Lars-Ake Nyman (ESO/La Silla), and Valentin Bujarrabal (Observatorio Astronomico Nacional, Madrid, Spain).

[2] Depending on the wavelength (and therefore on the energy it carries), electromagnetic radiation may take form of long and short radio waves, microwave radiation, infrared radiation, visible light, ultraviolet radiation, X-rays or gamma-rays.

[3] Microwave radiation is for instance used to cook meals in microwave ovens. The heating effect occurs when the radiation energy is absorbed by the water molecules in the food.

[4] Infrared radiation is what we experience as 'heat': we feel it, but we cannot see it.

[5] Stars with different temperatures have different colours. The Sun has a temperature of about 5,500 C and looks yellow, while hotter stars look blue and cooler stars are red. Analogously, when a metal bar is heated, it first will glow reddish, then become yellow, and eventually it will shine bluish.

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Über die Pressemitteilung

Pressemitteilung Nr.:eso9618
Legacy ID:PR 07/96
Name:IRAS 04553-6825, Spectrum
Typ:Local Universe : Star
Local Universe : Star : Evolutionary Stage : Red Supergiant
Facility:Dutch 0.9-metre telescope, New Technology Telescope, Swedish–ESO Submillimetre Telescope


IRAS 04553-6825: first extra-galactic SiO maser
IRAS 04553-6825: first extra-galactic SiO maser
First extra-galactic SiO maser
First extra-galactic SiO maser