Saturday, July 23, 2011

type II supernovae

A couple weekends ago at the Golden State Star Party I saw a really cool thing in my telescope that exemplifies one particular aspect of amateur astronomy that is very hard to share with passers-by. It's great to look at the Hercules cluster or Whirlpool Galaxy or Veil nebula but those kind of truly stunning photo-quality views are rare. Much of the fascination comes from the mindbogglingness of it all. It's frankly mindboggling how endlessly mindboggling the universe is.

Normally, every single dot of light that you see in the sky, even through a telescope, is a single star within our own galaxy. Other galaxies are so far away we didn't even realize they were there until the 20th century. The only extragalactic object you can see naked-eye is a faint fuzzy patch in Andromeda, the great Andromeda galaxy, a huge and very close neighbor to the Milky Way (about 2.5 million light years away).

With a telescope, you see many more of these fuzzy patches, but the smallest detail you can ever just barely see (still only in the large and very close examples) are globular clusters, which are themselves huge balls of millions of stars that couldn't quite make it as dwarf galaxies on their own.

So to see a single star within a galaxy 23 million light years away is downright insane. But that's what happens when a type II supernova occurs in the Whirlpool galaxy. An exploding giant star is the most powerful event in the known universe, so that a single star out of hundreds of billions of stars in a single galaxy millions of light years away can actually outshine the entire rest of the host galaxy.

My telescope is just big enough to clearly see this particular supernova. Two clear dots of light lay on the left side of the galaxy, one of which is a star on any map, and the other is an ephemeral glimmer of such a rare type that only a tiny fraction of humans have been able to see or understand it. To think, we humans go to New York City and are astonished by the amount of energy required to produce such a vibrant organism, and yet with a tiny seismic blip the Earth by itself could snuff this pinnacle of human civilization out. And a single tiny collision between orbiting pebbles could instantly erase out our entire Earthly existence. And a single tiny galactic blip could delete our entire solar system, the farthest limits of our feeble human reach and the source of all energy behind all phenomena we can experience tangibly, extinguished in a cosmic second like a cheap tea-light.

What other barely-distinguishable signal to a minuscule clump of rod cells can lead to such an existential experience of triviality?

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