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NASA Has What It Takes To Blow Up Our Sun

Some day billions of years from now, hopefully long after humanity has left the bounds of Earth and moved out to colonize the depths of outer space, our sun will exhaust its supply of fuel and shrink down into a white dwarf star. White dwarfs are sort of what’s left over, they’re about the size of planet Earth and sometimes… they go boom. Until now, no one really knew why.

In particular white dwarfs usually blow up in something called a Type Ia supernova. I’ll attempt to explain what that is as simply as possible. Scientist types, feel free to correct me in our comments if I get this wrong. In a Type Ia supernova is what happens when a white dwarf is in a binary system, in other words it has a companion star, and the white dwarf explodes. How?

NASA, using X-ray and ultraviolet observations from their Swift satellite, has discovered that what happens is the white dwarf begins siphoning off material from the companion star. When it steals enough it starts to get so hot that a runaway fusion reaction races through the dwarf in a matter of seconds, using up the white dwarf’s carbon and oxygen causing the release of more energy than the worn out little white dwarf can handle. That’s when it blows up.

These explosions are so large that they can outshine everything else in their entire galaxy for weeks at a time. That makes them pretty valuable too, since astronomers can use them to help measure distances in the universe.

So how do we test NASA’s supernova theory? Pretty simple. Just drag a white dwarf into our solar system, put it next to the sun, and see if everything blows up. If it does, we’ll all be dead but at least we’ll also be right. Now where did I leave my white dwarf catchpole?

Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregory.mee Greg Mee

    Apparently the type 1a explosion is almost the same for each star. Enough so that the sameness is what allows it to be used for measurements. 

    It differs from the other Supernova type (1b?) where the whole star is much larger than ours, collapses, and detonates. If that star is big enough then the collapsing core will have enough mass remaining to collapse into a black hole. 

    Apparently nearly all matter that’s heavier than Helium was created in these things. So we are all, literally, star stuff. (Ok, who said that in which TV series?) 

    • JT

      Neil de Grasse Tyson said it, in at least 3 different interviews.  My favorite of which was with Colbert.

      • CT

        That quote originally comes from Cosmos, the series which starred Carl Sagan.

        • Enrico

          Also Delenn in B5….

          • RF

            Also Searle and Pinbacker in ‘Sunshine’.

    • David Villa

      Elements heavier than helium are created by fusion in stars, but supernovae are the only way to get elements heavier than iron.

    • Will Mickelson

      Sliders

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000995651932 Alex J Avriette

    I do not intend to snark, but isn’t this old news? I could swear I’ve known this for a long time. Since when does Astronomy/Astrophysics not know how a 1a happens?

  • http://www.facebook.com/Electrodynamic Gordon Meredith

    I think the title is a little misleading,
    They would probably be lucky to blow up a small state.
    You lie article head line, and suck slightly.

  • Brian White

    I’ve read that our Sun is already in a binary system, it’s partner may not be broadcasting visible light.

    http://www.astrobio.net/exclusive/3427/getting-wise-about-nemesis

    • David VIlla

      Nope, sorry. There are a lot of unknowns about the solar system, but we would definitely know about something that massive.

      It’s funny how great both sci-fi and real-life science are, and how bad sci-fi is when it’s presented as science fact.