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very rare star with tremendous luminosity and very high rates of mass loss by stellar winds
Size comparison between the Sun and VY Canis Majoris, a hypergiant which is the largest known star.
Hypergiant V382 Carinae

A hypergiant (luminosity class 0) is a star with an enormous mass and luminosity, It shows signs of a very high rate of mass loss. The exact definition is not yet settled.

Hypergiants are the largest stars in the universe, usually larger than supergiants.[1] The hypergiant with the largest known diameter is VY Canis Majoris,[2] which is about 2,000 times wider than the Sun (or 2.784 billion kilometers).[3] This is roughly the same diameter as the orbit of Saturn.[4]

Another large hypergiant is NML Cygni, about 1,650 times wider than the Sun. It is one of the extreme luminous supergiant stars.[5] The pulsating red supergiant UY Scuti is probably larger still.

Hypergiants are very hard to find and they have a short lifespan because of their size. While the Sun has a lifespan of around 10 billion years, hypergiants will only exist for a few million years.


The Pistol Star: false-color image of the LBV Pistol Star and the Pistol Nebula

There are two special groups: luminous blue variables (LBV), and yellow hypergiants. Both of these types are very rare, with only a few examples in the Milky Way galaxy. Their rareness is probably because each type passes through this stage quite rapidly.


Great nebula in Carina, surrounding the LBV Eta Carinae

As luminosity of stars increases greatly with mass, the luminosity of hypergiants often lies very close to the Eddington limit. This is the luminosity at which the force of the star's gravity equals the radiation pressure outward.

This means that the radiative flux passing through the photosphere of a hypergiant may be nearly strong enough to lift away the photosphere. Above the Eddington limit, the star would generate so much radiation that parts of its outer layers would be thrown off in massive outbursts. This would effectively restrict the star from shining at higher luminosities for longer periods.

A good candidate for hosting a continuum-driven wind is Eta Carinae, one of the most massive stars ever observed. Its mass is about 130 solar masses and its luminosity four million times that of the Sun. Eta Carinae may occasionally exceed the Eddington limit.[6] The last time might have been outbursts observed in 1840–1860. These reached mass loss rates much higher than stellar winds would normally allow.[7]

Another theory to explain the massive outbursts of Eta Carinae is the idea of a deeply situated hydrodynamic explosion, blasting off parts of the star’s outer layers. The idea is that the star, even at luminosities below the Eddington limit, would have insufficient heat convection in the inner layers, resulting in a density inversion potentially leading to a massive explosion. The theory has, however, not been explored very much, and it is uncertain whether this really can happen.[8]


  1. However, note the definition is for huge luminosity and rapid mass loss, not simply size.
  2. L.B.F.M. Waters et al (2013). "HIFISTARS Herschel/HIFI observations of VY Canis Majoris - Molecular-line inventory of the envelope around the largest known star". Astronomy & Astrophysics 559: A93. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201321683. 
  3. Decin, L.; Winters, J. M.; McCarthy, M. C.; Müller, H. S. P.; Brünken, S.; Young, K. H.; Patel, N. A.; Menten, K. M. et al. (2013). "Pure rotational spectra of TiO and TiO2 in VY Canis Majoris". Astronomy & Astrophysics 551: A113. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201220290. 
  4. Massey, Philip; Levesque, Emily M. & Plez, Bertrand. [1] Bringing VY Canis Majoris down to size: an improved determination of its effective temperature
  5. Schuster M.T. (2007). Investigating the circumstellar environments of the cool hypergiants. ProQuest. p. 57. ISBN 978-0-549-32782-0. Retrieved 27 August 2012.
  6. Owocki, S.P. & van Marle A.J. 2007. "Luminous Blue Variables & mass loss near the Eddington Limit". Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union 3: 71–83. doi:10.1017/S1743921308020358. 
  7. Owocki S.P; Gayley K.G. & Shaviv N.J. 2004. "A porosity-length formalism for photon-tiring limited mass loss from stars above the Eddington limit". The Astrophysical Journal 616 (1): 525–541. doi:10.1086/424910. 
  8. Smith N. & Owocki S.P. 2006. "On the role of continuum driven eruptions in the evolution of very massive stars and population III stars". The Astrophysical Journal 645 (1): L45–L48. doi:10.1086/506523.