by Staff Writers
Paris (ESA) Feb 06, 2013

Artist’s impression comparing a smooth stellar wind (left) with a highly fragmented stellar wind (right) of a massive star like zeta Puppis. A decade’s-worth of observations with ESA’s XMM-Newton have revealed that the wind of zeta Puppis is fragmented into hundreds of thousands of individual hot (red) and cool (blue) clumps. Studying stellar winds is vital not only to understand mass loss from the star itself and thus its expected lifetime, but also how the winds inject material and energy into the surrounding environment and influence the birth and death of other stars. Copyright ESA-C. Carreau/Naze et al.

ESA’s XMM-Newton space observatory has completed the most detailed study ever of the fierce wind from a giant star, showing for the first time that it is not a uniform breeze but is fragmented into hundreds of thousands of pieces. Massive stars are relatively rare, but play a very important role in recycling materials in the Universe.

They burn their nuclear fuel much more rapidly than stars like the Sun, living only for millions of years before exploding as a supernova and returning most of their matter to space.

But even during their brief lives, they lose a significant fraction of their mass through fierce winds of gas driven off their surfaces by the intense light emitted from the star.

The winds from massive stars are at least a hundred million times stronger than the solar wind emitted by our own Sun and can significantly shape their surrounding environment.

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