Friday, May 11, 2007

"Sowing the Substance of Life"

An editorial from New York Times:

Living where we do, it can be hard to tell how ordinary our Sun is, shining dimly in our ordinary galaxy. Then comes something to remind us. This time it is a colossal supernova, called SN 2006gy, the brightest ever recorded. A supernova is an exploding star. This one, first observed last September, lies about 240 million light-years from us in the constellation Perseus. The explosion was perhaps 100 times more powerful than an ordinary supernova, and the star that exploded may have been 150 times the Sun’s mass, “freakishly massive,” as one astronomer put it. A photograph of SN 2006gy shows that it vastly outshines the entire galaxy in which it is located. This takes some imagining.

But so does the nature of the explosion itself, which puzzled observers at first. The usual explanations could not account for a supernova on this scale, nor was this the predictable demise of such a massive star. Instead, this anomalous explosion seems to offer a glimpse into one of the essential conditions for the universe we observe — the dispersal of heavy elements like carbon and iron. What we are witnessing in SN 2006gy may be the making of the very atomic stuff out of which we ourselves are made. We are used to the notion that looking at the stars means looking back in time. Looking at SN 2006gy may mean looking at one of the fundamental processes in a much earlier universe.

Astronomers point to an analogous star in our own galaxy, Eta Carinae, about 7,500 light-years away. It is similar in size, and similar in instability, to the star that turned, dying, into SN 2006gy. There is a possibility that Eta Carinae may itself die a similar, extraordinary death. It is perhaps unwise to hope for grand celestial events in one’s lifetime. Stunning discoveries from the past should be enough. But it is tempting to wonder what such a nearby supernova, on such a scale, would be like, how it would be to live under such an altered sky.

No comments: