Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Exploding Star: Not, I Think, a Jor El Moment, But Interesting

"Explosive Nearby Star Could Threaten Earth"
Space.com (January 4, 2010)

"A massive, eruptive white dwarf star in the Milky Way — long overdue for its next periodic eruption — is closer to our solar system than previously thought and could threaten the Earth if it fully explodes millions of years from now.

"New observations of the white dwarf and its sun-like stellar companion are giving scientists a better understanding of the star's precarious position as a possible supernova, astronomers said here today at the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

"The two stars are in a close binary system called T Pyxidis, located in the Southern Hemisphere constellation Pyxis ('The Compass Box'). Researchers found that the system is only 3,260 light-years from our solar system – far closer than anyone previously thought. (A light-year is the distance that light travels in one Earth year, or about 6 trillion miles.)

"The new findings suggest the white dwarf, considered close to us by cosmic standards, could eventually go supernova. Gamma radiation emitted by the supernova could threaten the Earth with an energy equivalent to 1,000 simultaneous solar flares...."

I remember reading the comics when I was young(er), and being impressed by the story of Jor El, who tried to convince the Kryptonian Science Council that this was the time to move. That was a very moving story, full of pathos and drama.

Now, after a whole lot of Jor El wannabes have tried to convince people that they gotta do something about Cyclamate, acid rain, power lines, and - now - carbon dioxide: One more 'and we're all gonna die' warning doesn't get the juices flowing so much.

Not that the Space.com article says we should all start building spaceships and getting ready to move.

First, although T Pyxidis really is "close" by astronomical standards, if it does become a supernova: we've probably got around 10,000,000 years before a that energy spike produces a whole bunch of nitrous oxide in our atmosphere, depletes the (what else?) ozone layer, and plays Hob with our communications satellites.

Assuming we're still using communications satellites 10,000,000 years from now. Somehow, I doubt it.

10,000 years ago flint tools were cutting-edge technology.

Today, a few people (including a few of my relatives) knapp flint as a hobby: and the latest thing in technology are things like interplanetary spaceships and robots.

10,000,000 years from now? Conventional 'humanity is doomed' sentiments notwithstanding, I think my descendants will be using things that would puzzle me. A lot.

By the time T Pyxidis blows its top for the last time, my guess is that my great-to-the-nth grandchildren will add dealing with it to their to-do list.

Or, we may get a chance to watch the fireworks a bit early.

T Pyxidis is - or was - a recurrent nova, drawing hydrogen from its companion star and fusing the lot in a really bright flash about every 20 years. We're pretty confident about that, since five eruptions were noted and recorded.

The last one was in 1967.

42 years ago.

Tick. Tick. Tick.
Tick. Tick.

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