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?