Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Stellar Birthdays and Supernovae

Today is a birthday that I didn't mail certain stuff in time for, so here is a blog devoted to October 17 instead.

In the history of American Independence October 17 was particulary important, and many other things of importance to human civilization occured, but I'm most interested in a certain year, 1604, when Johannes Kepler, trying to figure out the music of celestial spheres saw a sudden star in a constellation named Ophiuchus, the Serpent Holder, unknown to most people. Ophiuchus could be either of two guys who crossed Ceres and got divine and serpentine retribution in exchange. Or Hercules, who whacked snakes from infancy onwards. Another theory is it's Aeskulapius (Aesculapius) healing Glaucus, son of Minos after a snake bite. This confusion over the symbolism may be why this constellation is the "thirteenth" and forgotten astrological sign.
Kepler's drawing of the constellation Ophiucus shows a bearded greek man looking up to the right at an arm with a sword hacking behind his back at the serpent entwined around his torso. The man has his hands down at his sides, gripping at the serpent. His left foot seems to be stepping on a rather large bug which represents another constellation-- maybe Scorpio? His right ankle, to the picture's left, has a N on it which represents Kepler's supernova

This is Kepler's original drawing, with N at the ankle indicating the location of the supernova. Its remmant, thanks to the artistry of NASA combining photographs from 3 different telescopes, remains quite a firework spectacle.

Six part picture showing different telesocope images. the top 3 pictures show the full images, the botton 3 show blow-up portions of the same images.  Captions are X ray, Chandra X ray observatory for the lefthand images, which are in blue and whitish grey.  The center images are captioned as visible images from the Hubble Telescope, much less visible and mostly reddish.  The righthand images are infrared images from the Spitzer Space telescope, colored in red-orange with brilliant blue-white spots

The resulting image (Note the tongue action):

The combined image of Kepler's supernova is mostly blue-green with a red-purple glow on the upper and side edges, with a large protusion of red with green and yellow splotches. This looks rather like a large green-blue ball sticking its tongue out at us

Speak of a stellar illustration for The Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy.

We should also all already know that we are stardust. Many of the heavier elements are only made in supernovas.

The physics of supernova collapse is still being studied.

Kepler's supernova remmant will continue accelerating for millenia, expanding to a radius of dozens or hundred light-years wide, and helping to seed the neighborhood with heavy elements. Our earth would not exist if it was not for a similar supernova, and in fact the Stardust mission hoped to find atoms older than our sun, from bygone supernovae.

When you consider the universe is roughly 13.7 billion years old, years, let alone birthdays, are more evanescent than the blink of an eye. Yes, I know I'm still in trouble for forgetting to send a birthday card on time.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hmm. Isn't "Whacking Day" a holiday in the Simpsons' home town of Springfield where they celebrate the whacking of snakes?

Aha. I see it *is*.