Astronomers studied the house of giant stars

A team of Spanish astronomers conducted a comprehensive study of the Westerlund 1 star cluster. It is home to some of the largest luminaries of the Milky Way.

Ideal Space Laboratory

Westerlund 1 is one of the most remarkable star clusters known to astronomers. Firstly, the formation is very young — its age is less than ten million years (for comparison, the age of our Solar System is 5 billion years). Secondly, Westerlund 1 is very massive. This is one of the largest star clusters in our galaxy. And thirdly, Westerlund 1 is home to many giant stars.

Westerlund 1 star cluster. Source: ESO/VPHAS+ Survey/N. Wright

All the factors listed above make Westerlund 1 an ideal space laboratory for studying the formation and evolution of massive luminaries. However, observing the cluster is not the easiest task due to the large amount of dust surrounding it. Because of it, it is difficult for scientists to even determine the exact distance to Westerlund 1.

The largest star cluster of the Milky Way

A team of Spanish researchers tried to reveal the secrets of Westerlund 1. For this, they used the help of the Gaia orbital observatory, as well as the AAOmega spectrograph installed on the Anglo-Australian Telescope.

Westerlund 1 star cluster. Source: Asociacion RUVID

Analysis of the data obtained showed that Westerlund 1 is located at a distance of about 13.8 thousand light-years from Earth. Its mass exceeds the mass of the Sun by 100 thousand times. This makes Westerlund 1 the youngest massive star cluster in the Milky Way. Astronomers also managed to find a cluster of blue stars, which is located at a distance of about 6.5 thousand light-years from Earth. It may represent a previously unknown star-forming complex or segment of a spiral arm.

All the stars of Westerlund 1 that astronomers can observe are much more massive and lighter than the Sun. Some of them are so huge that if they hit the center of the Solar System, they would extend almost to the orbit of Saturn. The red supergiant Westerlund 1-237 stands out in particular, which is a contender for the title of the largest star in the Milky Way.

You can also read about how astronomers used data from the Gaia Observatory to create three-dimensional maps of nebulae.

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