Astronomer Nathan Smith discusses the properties of the most massive stars known, born with masses of 30 to 150 times the mass of our Sun.
Massive stars dominate many of the physical processes in interstellar space when they explode as brilliant supernovae, but these stars also wreak havoc on their surroundings before they die, leading short lives that are very different from that of the Sun. Early on, their ultraviolet radiation and fast winds carve huge cavities in the dark clouds that gave birth to them, disrupting the cradles where many other less massive stars are quietly trying to begin their lives.
Such regions are likely to be the birthplace of solar systems like our own.
Later on, as these monster stars become violently unstable, they can erupt repeatedly like volcanoes or undergo violent encounters with companion stars before they finally meet their end in a supernova explosion, ending up as either a compact neutron star or black hole.
Dr. Nathan Smith
Nathan Smith is a postdoctoral researcher in astronomy at UC Berkeley, where he works on the life and death of massive and violently unstable stars such as Eta Carinae. He earned Bachelor's degrees in music and astronomy from Minnesota in 1997, received a Master's in astronomy from Boston University in 1999, and came back to Minnesota to finish a PhD in astronomy in 2002. He was then a NASA Hubble Fellow at the University of Colorado in Boulder, before moving to Berkeley.
He's passionate about skateboarding, music (having studied classical music in India for a while, as well as touring the US with a painfully loud rock band), and unlike some astronomers whose office blackboards are covered with scrawled equations and scientific diagrams, most of Nathan's is taken up with names and star ratings of the single malt scotch whiskeys he is partial to tasting with friends and colleagues at an informal weekly after-work "scotch hour".
He is also responsible for producing some of the most dramatic images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope.