Weekly Space Hangout – Jan. 8, 2016: Elizabeth S. Sexton-Kennedy from FermiLab

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest:Elizabeth S. Sexton-Kennedy, who works at FermiLab as Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Offline Coordinator. CMS (at CERN/LHC) is a particle detector that is designed to see a wide range of particles and phenomena produced in high-energy proton collisions in the LHC.

Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Alessondra Springmann (@sondy)
Paul Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Pamela Gay (cosmoquest.org / @cosmoquestx / @starstryder)

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How Quickly Does a Supernova Happen?

When a massive star reaches the end of its life, it can explode as a supernova. How quickly does this process happen?

Our Sun will die a slow sad death, billions of years from now when it runs out of magic sunjuice. Sure, it’ll be a dramatic red giant for a bit, but then it’ll settle down as a white dwarf. Build a picket fence, relax on the porch with some refreshing sunjuice lemonade. Gently drifting into its twilight years, and slowly cooling down until it becomes the background temperature of the Universe.

If our Sun had less mass, it would suffer an even slower fate. So then, unsurprisingly, if it had more mass it would die more quickly. In fact, stars with several times the mass of our Sun will die as a supernova, exploding in an instant. Often we talk about things that take billions of years to happen on the Guide to Space. So what about a supernova? Any guesses on how fast that happens?

There are actually several different kinds of supernovae out there, and they have different mechanisms and different durations. But I’m going to focus on a core collapse supernova, the “regular unleaded” of supernovae. Stars between 8 and about 50 times the mass of the Sun exhaust the hydrogen fuel in their cores quickly, in few short million years.

Just like our Sun, they convert hydrogen into helium through fusion, releasing a tremendous amounts of energy which pushes against the star’s gravity trying to collapse in on itself. Once the massive star runs out of hydrogen in its core, it switches to helium, then carbon, then neon, all the way up the periodic table of elements until it reaches iron. The problem is that iron doesn’t produce energy through the fusion process, so there’s nothing holding back the mass of the star from collapsing inward.
… and boom, supernova.

The outer edges of the core collapse inward at 70,000 meters per second, about 23% the speed of light. In just a quarter of a second, infalling material bounces off the iron core of the star, creating a shockwave of matter propagating outward. This shockwave can take a couple of hours to reach the surface.

Type II Supernovae
SN 1987A, an example of a Type II-P Supernova

As the wave passes through, it creates exotic new elements the original star could never form in its core. And this is where we get all get rich. All gold, silver, platinum, uranium and anything higher than iron on the periodic table of elements are created here. A supernova will then take a few months to reach its brightest point, potentially putting out as much energy as the rest of its galaxy combined.

Supernova 1987A, named to commemorate the induction of the first woman into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the amazing Aretha Franklin. Well, actually, that’s not true, it was the first supernova we saw in 1987. But we should really name supernovae after things like that. Still, 1987A went off relatively nearby, and took 85 days to reach its peak brightness. Slowly declining over the next 2 years. Powerful telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope can still see the shockwave expanding in space, decades later.

Evolution of a Type Ia supernova. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss
Evolution of a Type Ia supernova. Credit: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss

Our “regular flavor” core collapse supernova is just one type of exploding star. The type 1a supernovae are created when a white dwarf star sucks material off a binary partner like a gigantic parasitic twin, until it reaches 1.4 times the mass of the Sun, and then it explodes. In just a few days, these supernovae peak and fade much more rapidly than our core collapse friends.

So, how long does a supernova take to explode? A few million years for the star to die, less than a quarter of a second for its core to collapse, a few hours for the shockwave to reach the surface of the star, a few months to brighten, and then just few years to fade away.

Which star would you like to explode? Tell us in the comments below.

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How Many Stars Did It Take To Make Us?

You know the quote, we’re made of stardust. Generation after generation of stars created the materials that make us up. How? And how many stars did it take?

Carl Sagan once said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.” To an average person, this might sound completely bananas. I feel it could easily be adopted into the same dirty realm as “My grandpappy wasn’t no gorilla”.

After all, if my teeth are made of stars, and my toothpaste supplier can be believed, why aren’t they brighter and whiter? If my bones are made of stars, shouldn’t I have this creepy inner glow like the aliens from Cocoon? Does this mean everything I eat is made of stars? And conversely, the waste products of my body then are also made of stars? Shouldn’t all this star business include some cool interstellar powers, like Nova? Also, shouldn’t my face be burning?

When the Big Bang happened, 13.8 billion years ago, the entire Universe was briefly the temperature and pressure of a star. And in this stellar furnace, atoms of hydrogen were fused together to make helium and heavier elements like lithium and a little bit of beryllium.

This all happened between 100 and 300 seconds after the Big Bang, and then the Universe wasn’t star-like enough for fusion to happen any more. It’s like someone set a microwave timer and cooked the heck of the whole business for 5 minutes. DING! Your Universe is done! All the other elements in the Universe, including the carbon in our bodies to the gold in our jewelry were manufactured inside of stars.

But how many stars did it take to make “us”? Main sequence stars, like our own Sun, create elements slowly, but surely within their cores. As we speak, the Sun is relentlessly churning hydrogen into helium. Once when it runs out of hydrogen, it’ll switch to crushing helium into carbon and oxygen. More massive stars keep going up the periodic table, making neon and magnesium, oxygen and silicon. But those elements aren’t in you. Once a regular star gets going, it’ll hang onto its elements forever with its intense gravity. Even after it dies and becomes a white dwarf.

White Dwarf Star
White Dwarf Star

No, something needs to happen to get those elements out. That star needs to explode. The most massive stars, ones with dozens of times the mass of our Sun don’t know when to stop. They just keep on churning more and more massive elements, right on up the periodic table. They keep fusing and fusing until they reach iron in their cores. And as iron is the stellar equivalent of ash, fusion reactions no longer generate energy, and instead require energy. Without the fusion energy pushing against the force of gravity pulling everything inward, the massive star collapses in on itself, creating a neutron star or black hole, or detonating as a supernova.

It’s in this moment, a fraction of a second, when all the heavier elements are created. The gold, platinum, uranium and other rare elements that we find on Earth. All of them were created in supernovae in the past. The materials of everything around you was either created during the Big Bang or during a supernova detonation. Only supernovae “explode” and spread their material into the surrounding nebula. Our Solar System formed within a nebula of hydrogen that was enriched by multiple supernovae. Everything around you was pretty much made in a supernova.

These images taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope show the dust and gas concentrations around a supernova. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
These images taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope show the dust and gas concentrations around a supernova. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

So how many? How many times has this cycle been repeated? We don’t know. Lots. There were the original stars that formed shortly after the Big Bang, and then successive generations of massive stars that formed in various nebulae. Astronomers are pretty sure it was a least 3 generations of supernovae, but there’s no way to know exactly.

Carl Sagan said you’re made of star-stuff. But actually you’re made up mostly of Big Bang stuff and generations of supernova stuff. Tasty tasty supernova stuff.

What’s your favorite supernova remnant? Tell us in the comments below.

Asteroid 2014 SC324 Zips By Earth Friday Afternoon – Tips on How to See it

What a roller coaster week it’s been. If partial eclipses and giant sunspots aren’t your thing, how about a close flyby of an Earth-approaching asteroid?  2014 SC324 was discovered on September 30 this year by the Mt. Lemmon Survey high in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, Arizona. Based on brightness, the tumbling rock’s size is estimated at around 197 feet (60-m), on the large side compared to the many small asteroids that whip harmlessly by Earth each year.

Near-Earth asteroid 2014 SC324 caught in the camera on October 23. The telescope tracked on the zippy space rock, causing the stars to trail. Credit: Gianluca Masi
Near-Earth asteroid 2014 SC324 caught in the camera on October 23. The telescope tracked on the zippy space rock, causing the stars to trail. Credit: Gianluca Masi

Closest approach happens around 2 p.m. CDT (7 p.m. UT) Friday afternoon when our fast friend misses Earth by just 351,000 miles (565,000 km) or 1.5 times the distance to the Moon. This is a very safe distance, so we can finish up our lunches without a jot of concern. But the asteroid’s  combination of size and proximity means amateur astronomers with a 10-inch or larger telescope will be able to track it across the sky beginning tonight (Oct. 23) and continuing through tomorrow night. 2014 SC324 should shine tolerably bright this evening at around magnitude +13.5.

Bright here is something of a euphemism, but when it comes to new Earth-approaching asteroids, this is within range of many amateur instruments. And because 2014 SC324 is “only” a half million miles away tonight, it’s not moving so fast that you can’t plot its arc on a single star chart, spot it and go for a ride.

Simulation based on recent data showing the known asteroids orbiting the Sun

By Friday evening, the new visitor will have faded a bit to magnitude +14. You can create a track for 2014 SC324 by inputting its orbital elements into a variety of astro software programs like MegaStar, the Sky, and Le Ciel. Elements are available via the Minor Planet Center and Horizons. Once saved, the program will make a track of the asteroid’s movement at selected time intervals. Print out the chart and you’re ready for the hunt!

Illustration of small asteroids passing near Earth. Credit: ESA / P. Carril
Illustration of small asteroids passing near Earth. Credit: ESA / P. Carril

You can also go to Horizons, ask for a list of positions every 15 minutes for example and then hand plot those positions in right ascension (R.A.) and declination (Dec.) on a star map.  This is what I do. I find the the general chunk of sky the asteroid’s passing through, print the map and then mark positions in pencil and connect them all with a line. Now I’ve got a chart I can use at the telescope based on the most current orbit.

Tonight the errant mountain will rumble through Aries the Ram, which is conveniently located in the eastern sky below Andromeda and the Great Square of Pegasus at nightfall.

Finding a dim, fast-moving object is doubtless an exciting challenge, but if you lack the equipment or the weather doesn’t cooperate, you can see the show online courtesy of Italian astrophysicist Gianluca Masi. He’ll stream the close encounter live on his Virtual Telescope Project website beginning at 7 p.m. CDT (midnight UT) tomorrow night October 24-25.

Clear skies!