UF professor finds record-making star

Published: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 1:37 a.m.
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UF professor Stephen Eikenberry poses with a two-pixel infrared camera he built.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun


About the star

  • The star is called LBV 1806-20.
  • It is 150 times the size of Earth's sun and 40 million times as bright.
  • It is about 45,000 light years from Earth.

  • The University of Florida may have been the first to win national titles in football and basketball in the same year, but it's a star found by campus astronomers that is going down in the world record books.
    Stephen Eikenberry, a professor in the department of astronomy at UF, discovered LBV 1806-20. Eikenberry and his colleagues believed the star to be the largest and brightest ever found, and recently officials for the Guinness Book of World Records affirmed the scientists' findings.
    Eikenberry and the star, which is 150 times the size of Earth's sun and 40 million times as bright, will appear in the 2008 edition.
    "It's pretty cool," Eikenberry said. "Things change and records get broken, so it could be temporary."
    The previous record for brightest star was Pistol Star, which was discovered in the 1990s by Don Figer of the Baltimore-based Space Telescope Science Institute.
    Eikenberry and his crew are trying to find out precisely how bright the star is and how far away it is. Brightness cannot be determined without knowing the distance.
    Eikenberry estimates that LBV 1806-20 is about 45,000 light-years from Earth (a light-year is how far light can travel in one year, which is roughly 5.88 trillion miles). That translates to about 300 quintillion miles, which is a "3" followed by 17 zeros.
    The nearest star to our planet, other than the sun, is about 3 light-years away, or 17 trillion miles, which is a "17" with 12 zeros. The sun is merely 93 million miles from the Earth, or about eight light minutes.
    Eikenberry said the jury is still out on whether the star is a single star or multiple stars.
    "I'm not too hung up on whether it's a single star or a triple star," Eikenberry said. "We're pretty confident it is a single star."
    Astronomers estimate the star's age is between 2 million and 3 million years old.
    While an exact age has yet to be determined, Eikenberry said he believes he will be able to gauge it upon the completion of the telescope he is working on in a lab at the Bryant Space Science Center at UF.
    "Flamingos 2," as it is called, would allow observers to see up to six stars at a time.
    The $6 million telescope is about 8 feet long and weighs "about a ton." The 4 million-pixel camera uses infrared light to view stars.
    He said the telescope will be the most powerful in the world.
    Eikenberry has been building infrared cameras since he attended graduate school at Harvard University. One he built at Cornell University, where he worked just before coming to UF, was once the world's most powerful infrared camera.
    He said his mom brags that he has wanted to be a scientist since he was in third grade, when he found out what a scientist was.
    In sixth grade, his science class watched "Cosmos" with Carl Sagan - that's when he decided he wanted to pursue astronomy. What is ironic, Eikenberry said, is that he replaced Sagan when he was hired at Cornell University.
    Eikenberry said he came to UF because he wanted to be a part of the rapidly developing astronomy program. Eikenberry considers himself an experimental astrophysicist and wanted to build his own equipment.
    Eikenberry moved to Gainesville in 2003 with his family. He has a doctorate and master's degree in astronomy from Harvard and bachelor's degrees in physics and literature from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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