New images captured by ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) have discovered how the massive star VY Canis Majoris loses so much mass as it begins to die, as outlined in a press release. The researchers published their findings in a recent study and outline how the unusually large dust particles that surround the star allow it to get rid of massive amounts of mass during the process of death. Prior to the findings, this process was not understood.

The scientists utilized the SPHERE instrument of the VLT, which is an adaptive optics system that allowed them to get detailed pictures of the very bight VY Canis Majoris star, revealing that it was lighting up the clouds of dust particles that surround it. Analysis of these dust particles found that although they seemed small, they were approximately 50 times bigger than the size of dust typically found in space.

"Massive stars live short lives," said Peter Scicluna, lead author of the paper. "When they near their final days, they lose alot of mass. In the past, we could only theorise about how this happened. But now, with the new SPHERE data, we have found large grains of dust around this hypergiant. These are big enough to be pushed away by the star's intense radiation pressure, which explains the star's rapid mass loss."

Prior to death, the clouds of dust are pushed outwards before the explosion - at this point, some of the particles are destroyed, although due to their large size many of them survive the radiation of the explosion and are thrown out into interstellar space. These surviving dust particles become a part of the interstellar medium around the star, allowing new generations of stars to utilize them and form planets.