Thursday, January 1, 2009


Happy 2009!

I hope that everyone had a lovely 'ring-in-the-new-year' event. My evening was spent with friends and spirits, so it was a fun time indeed.

One of my new year's resolutions is to stick to a routine with my blogging; so that I can get better at writing and so that I can have an archive of the things I think about. And what better way to start off the new year, than with an exciting example of how science works?!

Just recently, published in the Astrophysical Journal, scientists have managed to test hypotheses concerning the formation of supernovae, using as a case study an event just a mere 13 million light years away from us.

Last year, on my birthday (March 28th for all those who want to remember the date and gift me something wonderful :-), a special notice was sent out that supernova 2008bk had been discovered on March 25th. The notice indicated that:

This supernova has not yet been spectrally classified, but the galaxy is undergoing active star formation and a core collapse supernova is possible.

Stars in our universe, like our very own Sun, are sites of nuclear fusion: a process which creates larger nuclei from smaller ones, generating an enormous amount of energy - energy that is necessary to keep the weight of the star from crumbling on top of itself. When a star runs out of fuel, it cannot support its own weight anymore without the release of this energy, and so one of two fates can occur depending on the mass of that star.

In the case of our Sun, a series of steps in stellar evolution will take it through the phases of a dwarf star as luminosity slowly decreases due to the lack of fusion. In other stars that have roughly 8 times or more than the mass of our own Sun, a spectacular event occurs called a Supernova. This is where enough mass collapses down that the implosion leads to the most powerful explosion known in our universe. During this time, unimaginable amounts of light are given off and that is what astronomers observed in March of 2008.

Just recently scientists went back to maps of the sky from BEFORE the big explosion and searched the area for possible candidate stars that could have been responsible. Using a new image of supernova 2008bk taken from the Very Large Telescope they were able to reasonably identify the culprit: a red supergiant. Based on what we know about parameters for supernovae to form, they predicted that the original mass of the star must have been at least 8 times that of our Sun. After careful calculations, the original mass of the star was determined to be 8.5 solar masses.

Question. Observation. Hypothesis. Prediction. Experiment. Results. Hypothesis SUPPORTED. By Zeus, I love the scientific method!

Now, if only I could only see a supernova up close without getting obliterated ...

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