Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Exploding Stars, Theory Confirmed; Old Stars, Not So Much

Two articles from this week:

"Huge Cosmic Explosions Fueled by Magnetism " (December 9, 2009)

"The death of one star can sometimes outshine a galaxy of billions of stars. That's because when some very massive stars end their lives in supernova explosions, they release a surge of light known as a gamma ray burst.

"Now scientists have found evidence that magnetic fields are behind these rare events. Theorists have predicted that magnetic fields could explain how gamma ray bursts (GRBs) produce jets of bright radiation that shoot out into the universe. But no one has observed the presence of a magnetic field in a gamma ray burst until now.

"On Jan. 2, 2009, a gamma ray burst erupted and was quickly detected by NASA's Swift satellite, which makes continuous scans of the cosmos in hopes of catching one of these outbursts, as they generally last only seconds. Swift reported the burst immediately to telescopes around the world, and the robotic Liverpool Telescope on the Canary Island of La Palma automatically began observing it...."

"Mystery of Changing Star Brightness Deepens " (December 7, 2009)

"Unusual fluctuations in the brightness of older sun-like stars have long mystified astronomers, and new, detailed observations of the phenomenon have only deepened the mystery.

"The new data, taken with the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, contradict all of the explanations that astronomers have previously put forward to account for years-long variations seen in the brightness of one-third of sun-like stars that are in the later stages of their lives.

" 'We have obtained the most comprehensive set of observations to date for this class of sun-like stars, and they clearly show that all the possible explanations for their unusual behavior just fail,' said study team member Christine Nicholls of Mount Stromlo Observatory, Australia.

"The mystery investigated by Nicholls and her team dates back to the 1930s and affects about a third of sun-like stars in our Milky Way and other galaxies. All stars with masses similar to our sun become, towards the end of their lives, red, cool and extremely large, just before retiring as white dwarfs...."

It's exciting, when new observations confirm at least part of a theory. It's even more exciting, when new observations don't match what mathematical models say should be happening.

When data and theory don't match up, that can mean that there's a whole new facet of reality to explore.

It's like going through an old house, confident that you know pretty much where all the rooms are and what's in them: and you find a door you hadn't noticed before, opening into the hallway of another wing of the house.

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