The death throes of the biggest star known to science have been observed by Europe's new space telescope, Herschel.
The observatory, launched in May, has subjected VY Canis Majoris, to a detailed spectroscopic analysis.
It has allowed Herschel to identify the different types of molecules and atoms that swirl away from the star which is 30-40 times as massive as our Sun.
VY Canis Majoris is some 4,500 light-years from Earth and could explode as a supernova at any time.
It is colossal. If VY Canis Majoris were sited at the centre of our Solar System, its surface would extend to the orbit of Saturn.
The star, in the constellation Canis Major, has been recorded by astronomers for at least 200 years.
It is what is called a red hypergiant – a highly evolved object that is exhausting its nuclear fuel.
Its end days see it spew vast quantities of gas and dust into interstellar space, including elements such as carbon, oxygen and nitrogen – the raw materials that will go into the production of future planets, and, who knows, perhaps life elsewhere in the galaxy.
Herschel has trained the spectrometers in its Pacs and Spire instruments on the extensive cloud of material billowing away from the object.
Spectrometers capture and split light into its constituent wavelengths, creating a kind of “fingerprint” that will reveal information on the chemistry of a light source. …