The Least Popular Stars in the Sky

There are many stars that are well known to everyone – Polaris (or the North Star), Sirius, Alpha Centauri, Betelgeuse, and the like. However, many stars with fascinating features and distinctions go unknown because of their distance or dimness in the skies. Stars thousands of times bigger than our Sun, stars with potentially habitable planets, and stars at the verge of a brilliant and final death all go unnoticed in daily life.

By far the largest star that's observable from Earth is VY Canis Majoris, a star within the constellation of Canis Major. Its size has been estimated to be about 1.7 billion miles in diameter, meaning that if it were in the center of the solar system it might well extend beyond the boundaries of Saturn's orbit. This also makes its radius somewhere between 1,800 and 2,100 times larger than that of the sun. It's also intensely bright and is crimson in color. While its exact size and brightness are debated (the distance between it and Earth is hard to estimate), it is at the very least a supergiant and quite possibly a hypergiant. In addition, it's fascinatingly unstable, throwing off periodic bursts of gas and seemingly close to becoming not just a supernova but an outright hypernova. This star is sadly unknown to all but the astronomy community, when it should be a fascinating example of just how stunningly huge stars can be.

While it's for different reasons, the little known Epsilon Eridani is perhaps even more fascinating. Part of the constellation Eridanus, Epsilon Eridani is one of the nearest Sun-like stars to Earth. While young and therefore still magnetically active, already Epsilon Eridani has many of the properties that make our sun suited for the development of life. In addition, it is already known that Epsilon Eridani possesses at least one planet, a large gas giant some distance away, and there is some evidence that at least one more extrasolar planet. While there does not seem to be an Earth-like planet nearby, there is still a chance, and the conditions of Epsilon Eridani itself might make it suited to the future development of an artificial planet if humanity gains the technology needed. These qualities have made Epsilon Eridani popular among science fiction writers, but despite its potential, the star is little known to the general population.

While not technically a single star, the stellar system of Eta Carinae in the constellation of Carina is nonetheless fascinating. The collective mass of the system is easily in excess of 100 solar masses, and it is around four million times more luminous than the sun. This puts it close to the point of complete instability, where the force of the star's radiation would overcome the forces of gravity and cause rapid and dramatic loss of mass through a supernova or something similar. Indeed, Eta Carinae is known partially because in 1843 the system seemed to become a supernova, only to survive. These supernova impostors are fairly rare, with only a few others known. The false supernova left a dramatic nebula of gas, the Homunculus Nebula, around Eta Carinae, and also damaged the internal structure of the star. It seems very likely that the system will soon undergo a true supernova. However, this fast-dying system is unknown despite the majesty of its final years.

The sky is full of fascinating objects, many of them rightfully known and adored – but some slip to the wayside despite their fascinating properties. While these stars may be ‘unpopular' among the general public, they deserve attention from the world.

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