In Brief
  • VFTS 352 is a binary star system that is 57 times more massive and nearly seven times hotter than our Sun.
  • The stellar dance could end in one of two ways: the stars could merge into a single enormous star, or they will go out in a pair of supernova blasts.

Recently, the ESO (European Space Observatory) announced that it discovered the hottest and most massive double star in the known universe. These stars are so close that they are overlapping, coming together in an embrace that will, ultimately, lead to their destruction.

The pair in question is known as VFTS 352, and they are true titans of the cosmos. Although our star may seem rather large to us, compared to VFTS 352, it’s actually just a baby. This pair has a combined mass that is some 57 times that of the Sun. If that’s not enough, they have surface temperatures above 40,000° C (72,000° F). For comparison, the surface of the Sun is just 5,600° C (10,000° F).

As an interesting aside, even though this duo is massive compared to our sun, it could be considered small, relatively speaking, as the most massive star is the known universe, R136a1, is a staggering 320 solar masses.

The two stars were spotted by an astronomical team thanks to the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT).

Located about 160,000 light-years away from Earth, in the Tarantula Nebula, the two stars orbit each other at amazing speeds. They complete a revolution in just over one Earth day (making their year roughly equivalent to a day on our own planet). This short orbital period is made possible because of the close proximity of the two stellar heavyweights.

Ultimately, the stellar cores of these stars are only about 12 million km (7.5 million miles) apart. For comparison, Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, orbits at a distance of some 59.2 million km (36.8 million miles). In fact, the stars in VFTS 352 are so close that gravity creates a bridge between the two. Material from one blends with material from the other, forming a kind of stellar chimera.

And, as previously mentioned, this close connection is a deadly one.

Scientists have two primary ideas regarding what this close proximity will eventually lead to. The first asserts that the two stars will one day merge and, in so doing, create a single gigantic star. This fusion would mean that each star would lose itself in light of the greater whole, and it would create quite the explosion.

The stellar fireworks would result from the amazingly fast rotation of the object, “If it keeps spinning rapidly, it might end its life in one of the most energetic explosions in the universe, known as a long-duration gamma-ray burst,” Hugues Sana, of the University of Leuven in Belgium, said in the ESO press release.

The second idea states that the two stars will not merge. Instead, they will remain compact and end their lives as supernova blasts.  The team’s lead theoretical astrophysicist, Selma de Mink, states that this would cause the stars to transition into one of the most perplexing objects in the known universe: A black hole. If true, the gravitational disturbances caused by this event could provide astronomers with a rare and incredible research opportunity. de Mink notes, “The components would likely end their lives in supernova explosions, forming a close binary system of black holes. Such a remarkable object would be an intense source of gravitational waves.”

For now, we will have to just wait and see.