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Space Concerns


Credit: David A. Hardy & PPARC

Sometimes, scientists and the media conspire to produce really fascinating and frightening news stories. Such is the hype surrounding T Pyxidis- the Death Star.  It’s about the end of the earth, people.

———-

So I’m doing my daily scan of the Drudge Report and making my way through the headlines: Dum-dee-dum-dum-dum. Next Arctic blast blows even colder. Yawn. Stretch. Obama approves tax on health plans. Dum-dee-dum-dum-dum. Yellow Ribbons for soldiers banned in Connecticut town. Well, that sucks. SHOCK: Argument leads to baby being thrown from car. Oh, man, poor baby. Obama orders air marshall surge by Feb 1: race against time. Dum-dee-dum-dum-dum. Supernova Star Blast ‘could wipe out earth.’ Dum-dee….W-w-w-what????

Supernova Star Blast ‘could wipe out earth.’

This is how I find out me, my family, my friends, the friggin’ dog and my cats are all going to perish? In item #24 on the Drudge Report? And I was worrying about the cost of health care, Iranian nukes and starting a new job next month?

Really, I haven’t been this concerned since I read last week that the Russians were going to take it upon themselves to send a spacecraft to knock an asteroid off a possible collision course with earth.  The Russians have a very crappy record with rockets lately. Their Bulova missile, for example, has failed in 9 of 13 launch attempts and my confidence in their knocking-the-asteroid-off-course strategy is precisely ZERO. But this?

Here are the facts as I understand them from Astronomy magazine. Villanova University astronomers Edward M. Sion and Patrick Godon along with one of their students, Timothy McClain, presented a report on Monday at the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C. in which they revealed that a “massive, explosive white dwarf star” in a binary system with another star much like our sun, is closer to our solar system than anyone previously thought.

I know this about Villanova. It’s in Philadelphia. They sometimes have a very good basketball team and upset Georgetown in the NCAA title game some 20 years ago. I had no idea they were also capable of scaring the holy bejeezus out of us like this.

This close binary system is called T Pyxidis, which I think is an altogether way too light-hearted name for a DEATH STAR. The massive dwarf white star that’s part of this dynamic duo has had a nasty habit of suffering thermonuclear explosions. They’ve occurred in 1890, 1902, 1920, 1944 and 1967. Simple math dictates this baby is way overdue. Obviously, unless we are living in some kind of parallel universe, the earth did not meet its end in any of these five previous nova events. So what’s different about its future cosmic tantrums, whenever they come?

I’ll let Astronomy magazine take it from here:

If the mass of the white dwarf in such a binary star system increases with time, it will eventually reach the so-called Chandrasekhar limit and undergo instantaneous gravitational collapse, resulting in a powerful thermonuclear detonation that would completely destroy the white dwarf and leave no stellar remnant such as a pulsar or black hole. This catastrophic event, known as a type Ia supernova (or “white dwarf supernova”), releases 10 million times more energy than a nova explosion, or is equivalent to 20 billion, billion, billion megatons of TNT.

And to make matters worse- much, much worse- this binary star system is, like, next door. It is less than 1,000 parsecs away- 3,200 light years. All evidence points to the fact this thing is heading toward an explosion that will exceed the Chandrasekhar limit. At less than 1,000 parsecs, that means gamma rays hitting the earth with the intensity of a thousand simultaneous solar flares. Goodbye Ozone layer. Talk about your global warming. This would be global frying. From The Sun newspaper’s web site:

It will become as bright as all the other stars in the galaxy put together and shine like a beacon halfway across the universe.

Ah- but when might this happen? Well, kind of like 3,200 light years is next door. Tomorrow– in cosmic terms. Which is to say- in several million years. Ok, some calculations say, actually, 10 million years.

Frankly, I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed.

  1. ben mason
    January 8, 2010 at 4:15 am

    Robert I had no idea you were so capable as a writer and arranger of wildly vivid scientific information. Keeping us this informed and entertained is a talent, but sending me into the cold sweats is, well, just plain mean. I am swallowing a pair of pink pills which appeared on my desk as my panic became visable to my assistant. I have just now found the strength to leave the bathroom and attend to this mild tch tching which you so roundly deserve. Keep up the good work, but next time, put the punch line out front, a header of sorts, so we fragile types don’t think the world is ending before tea time.

  2. January 8, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    Gee, Ben, you’re so SENSITIVE about this whole death thing! Could you send me some of those pink pills? I go through similar anxiety just reading/watching/hearing the news everyday.

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