Thursday, May 3, 2012

Space Is a Brutal Place

Posted By on May 3, 2012, 1:45 AM

A star in the Draco constellation was recently murdered by a black hole. ---

Not just murdered, but shredded and swallowed -- a helpless star, by a perverse, serial-killing black hole!

At least, that's how the story was sensationalized in the popular science press.

Now, the actual findings, as published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature, were just as exciting, but a little bit too thinky for us average readers. The real news was that astronomers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, building upon the work of scientists from many other organizations, were able to finally observe the "rising emission" phase of "a luminous ultraviolet–optical flare from the nuclear region of an inactive galaxy."

That is, they were smart (and lucky) enough to have their powerful, high-tech telescopes pointed in exactly the right direction at exactly the right time to witness, from start to finish, a fairly rare cosmic phenomenon: the helium core of a red giant star (previously stripped of its hydrogen envelope) disappearing into a black hole.

In the past, we've detected these events only during the "falling emission" phase -- the disappointing Act II of this stellar drama. So, we've had to rely on theoretical mathematical models.

Of course, we've got nothing against these mathematical models -- actually, they've proved to be pretty good up till now. But our newfound ability to observe the rising-emission phase of these events provides science with new data, allowing us to confirm previous theories about the composition of distant stars and the nature of black holes, and perhaps even to modify current thought.

Which is pretty cool, when you think about it. But I guess not as titillating as "Giant Black Hole Shreds and Swallows Helpless Star."

click to enlarge fullmoon.jpg
In other science news, the Moon is going to kill us on Saturday!

According to USA Today, May 5 will feature a "supermoon" -- that is, a full Moon occurring at perigee, the Moon's closest approach to Earth.

Could a supermoon have been the cause of the Titanic disaster? This random website reports, you decide.

So, watch out! Some people think that supermoons cause earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and dirt, grease and stains in your family wash.

In reality, the evening of May 5 is simply an opportunity to view a big, bright full moon -- that night, the Moon will appear 14 percent larger (and 30 percent brighter, which I guess must be due to some kind of inverse-square luminosity law) than the full moon does on average.

According to NASA, there is little reason to fear the supermoon. It happens about once per year, and evidence suggests it's harmless.

My advice: Just enjoy it! Go out and dance naked around a bonfire! Or do whatever it is normal people do during a full Moon. (Although, to be safe, you may wish to cancel any transatlantic voyages on that date.)

Black hole illustration credit: S. Gezari/Johns Hopkins University and J. Guillochon, UC Santa Cruz/NASA

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