Wolf-Rayet stars (often referred to as WR stars) are evolved, massive stars (over 20 solar masses), which are losing mass rapidly by means of a very strong stellar wind, with speeds up to 2000 km/s. While our own Sun loses approximately 10−14 of its own mass every year, Wolf-Rayet stars typically lose 10−5 solar masses a year. Wolf-Rayet stars are very hot, with surface temperatures in the range of 25,000 K to 50,000 K. It is believed that the star in the galaxy NGC 2770 that exploded into a supernova on January 9, 2008 - the first supernova ever observed in the act of exploding - was a Wolf-Rayet star.
The nature of the emission bands in the spectra of a Wolf-Rayet star remained a mystery for several decades. Edward C. Pickering theorized that the lines were caused by an unusual state of hydrogen, and it was found that this "Pickering series" of lines followed a pattern similar to the Balmer series, when half-integral quantum numbers were substituted. It was later shown that the lines resulted from the presence of helium; a gas that was discovered in 1868.
By 1929, the width of the emission bands was being attributed to the Doppler effect, and hence that the gas surrounding these stars must be moving with velocities of 300–2400 km/s along the line of sight. The conclusion was that a Wolf-Rayet star is continually ejecting gas into space, producing an expanding envelope of nebulous gas. The force ejecting the gas at the high velocities observed is radiation pressure.
In addition to helium, emission lines of carbon, oxygen and nitrogen were identified in the spectra of Wolf-Rayet stars. In 1938, the International Astronomical Union classified the spectra of Wolf-Rayet stars into types WN and WC, depending on whether the spectrum was dominated by lines of nitrogen or carbon-oxygen respectively.
Conti (1976) originally proposed that the WR stars as a class are descended from massive O-stars in which the strong stellar winds characteristic of extremely luminous stars have ejected the unprocessed outer H-rich layers. The characteristic emission lines are formed in the extended and dense high-velocity wind region enveloping the very hot stellar photosphere, which produces a flood of UV radiation that causes fluorescence in the line-forming wind region. This ejection process uncovers in succession, first the nitrogen-rich products of CNO cycle burning of hydrogen (WN stars), and later the carbon-rich layer due to He burning (WC & WO stars). Most of these stars are believed finally to progress to become supernovae of Type Ib or Type Ic. A few (roughly 10%) of the central stars of planetary nebulae are, despite their much lower (typically ~0.6 solar) masses, also observationally of the WR-type; i.e., they show emission line spectra with broad lines from helium, carbon and oxygen. Denoted [WR], they are much older objects descended from evolved low-mass stars and are closely related to white dwarfs, rather than to the very young, very massive stars that comprise the bulk of the WR class.
It is possible for a Wolf-Rayet star to progress to a "collapsar" stage in its death throes: This is when the core of the star collapses to form a black hole, pulling in the surrounding material. This is thought to be the precursor of a long gamma-ray burst.
The best known (and most visible) example of a Wolf-Rayet star is Gamma 2 Velorum (γ² Vel), which is a bright star visible to those located south of 40 degrees northern latitude. One of the members of the star system (Gamma Velorum is actually at least six stars) is a Wolf-Rayet star. Due to the exotic nature of its spectrum (bright emission lines in lieu of dark absorption lines) it is dubbed the "Spectral Gem of Southern Skies".