200,000 Earths

[Think we're all ready to talk about something else for a while? —Ebonmuse]

In May 1987, astronomers witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime event: a supernova, the explosive death of a supergiant star, in the Large Magellanic Cloud approximately 170,000 light-years from Earth. SN 1987A, as it was named, was the first supernova to be studied using the instruments of modern astronomy (although not the first supernova witnessed by humanity), and produced a wealth of data for scientists.

Image via.

After the bright initial explosion, SN 1987A gradually faded over the next few months. But then, later in the year, astronomers got a second bonus: three large, glowing rings appeared around the star, lit up as if by a cosmic switch. The prevailing theory is that these rings are clouds of gas puffed off by the star earlier in life, and the intense shock wave of energy emitted by the supernova ionized and heated them to the point of becoming luminous. Among other things, these bright rings were large enough to use for a trigonometric calculation that yields the exact distance between SN 1987A and Earth, providing a useful cross-check for other methods of measuring cosmological distance. And the ongoing study of SN 1987A continues to yield new discoveries, including one just reported in the July 8 issue of the journal Science.

The European Space Agency’s space-based Herschel observatory, which sees in far infrared wavelengths, was surveying the Large Magellanic Cloud and had a chance to observe the dead star. In Herschel’s sensitive vision, the site of SN 1987A was glowing with dim, low-temperature radiation being emitted from a colossal cloud of cold dust surrounding the supernova remnant. This cosmic dust is made up of all the elements heavier than helium – carbon, oxygen, iron, nitrogen, silicon – that were synthesized in the nuclear cauldron of the star’s later life and spewed into space in its death throes.

But what surprised the astronomers was the sheer size of the dust cloud. Being cold and dark, it would have been hard to detect with a less sensitive instrument than Herschel, which is why it went unnoticed until now – but, according to the researchers, there was enough dust blown out of the supernova to create 200,000 Earth-sized planets.

I hope, when you read that number, you feel the same faint tingle of awe that I do. That cold, dark dust cloud enshrouding the dead star potentially contains the seeds of tens of thousands of worlds.

As the supernova remnant expands, most of this dust will dissipate into the cosmic medium, become spread out into space. But some of it may enrich gaseous nebulae where new stars are born, and when the swirling protoplanetary disks around those young suns collapse, they’ll form planetesimals that will be drawn to each other by gravity and coalesce to form new planets. When the fiery heat of their birth subsides, these new planets will have their own continents, their own oceans, their own mountains, their own rivers and seas – and perhaps in time their own life, all made, just as our world and we ourselves are made, of atoms forged millions of years ago in a star’s stupendous death.

We are scions of the universe, and the cosmic process of creation that made us is still going on. Carl Sagan, of course, said it best:

“The Cosmos was originally all hydrogen and helium. Heavier elements were made in red giants and in supernovas and then blown off into space, where they were available for subsequent generations of stars and planets. Our Sun is probably a third-generation star. Except for hydrogen and helium, every atom in the Sun and the Earth was synthesized in other stars. The silicon in the rocks, the oxygen in the air, the carbon in our DNA, the gold in our banks, the uranium in our arsenals were all made thousands of light-years away and billions of years ago. Our planet, our society and we ourselves are built of star stuff.”

170,000 years ago, a sun died in a distant galaxy, and the dispersal of starstuff began anew. The light from that cataclysm only reached our telescopes in 1987, which means that we won’t know for another 170,000 years what’s going on in that region today. It may well be that some of those precious atoms are already engaged in the processes that will one day lead to them becoming part of a living being on a rich and distant world.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Erik

    I’m in the wrong line of work. =(

  • Joffan

    Awesome thought.

    Another interesting thing about this event is the neutrino pulse that was detected. It’s hard to imagine, given how reluctantly neutrinos interact with anything, but a supernova is effectively blown apart by neutrinos. “Just in time” for SN1987A, we humans started building neutrino detection machines – typically massive tanks of pure water, with photomulitpliers watching for the incredibly rare flash of a neutrino interaction – and we saw the pulse of neutrinos from that massive distance.

    The idea of “today” as a common concept that applies both here and for something as far away as SN1987A is slightly fuzzy. Perhaps using the cosmic microwave background as a reference frame would allow the translation.

  • Kacy Ray

    Ebon,

    I’ve always been impressed by your fascination with the cosmos and of large-scale thinking in general. I think this boyish fascination is what made Sagan such an appealing character as well – watching him in the Cosmos series, he wore that wide-eyed wonder on his sleeve, even as a man in his 40′s (or 50′s?). It was beautiful to watch, and his curiosity and appreciation for the sheer grandiosity of the cosmos was infectious.

    It’s true what Joffan said, the word “today” almost doesn’t apply to anything taking place 170,000 miles from here. I was watching a show on the science channel a few days ago about time and how our understanding of it is so limied and how there may come a time (if I can even use that term!) when time no longer exists. It’s pretty mind-blowing.

    He was also talking how the concept of reversing time isn’t ruled out by the laws of physics, and how time actually changes at the quantum level. Future Ebon post, perhaps?

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Astronomy has been fascinating to me since I was a kid. The sheer scale and mystery of the cosmos is overwhelming at times.

    It bothers me that funding for space exploration projects has fallen off. The truly big projects are not only incredibly inspiring accomplishments in their own right; they also involve the development of numerous new technologies which turn out to be useful in many other contexts.

    As time goes on, it is also becomingly increasingly apparent that fully probing the laws of physics requires experiments out in the vacuum of space. If we really want to know what dark matter and dark energy truly are, we need to get out there and take a look.

  • http://peyre.byethost8.com/ Leon Baradat

    Great stuff, Ebon. I’m surprised Carl Sagan got something wrong in that quote though! The universe originally also had small amounts of lithium, which isn’t produced in supernovas. Almost all the lithium in the universe was formed in those first few minutes of existence.

  • Demonhype

    As far back as I can remember, my mother has hated Carl Sagan. No, she’s not really a fundie, but I guess at one point, back in the day and long before I was either born or old enough to appreciate anything, he expressed disbelief in the existence of space-aliens and she’s been pissed off about that ever since. Prior to that, she loved watching him.

    Which is sad, because I only started knowing anything about him in my twenties, when I started frequenting atheist sites, and he seems like an awesome guy from everything I’ve seen and heard. I love these posts! :)

    I’m almost afraid to show her that clip with Neil DeGrasse Tyson expressing his views on UFO’s. He doesn’t just state that it’s baloney or anything, but my mom tends to get a little bit unbalanced at the slightest hint of actual skepticism, despite her insistence that she is, in fact, a skeptic. And she loves Neil DeGrasse Tyson!

    I think I’ll just keep my yap shut. :)

  • Kacy Ray

    The most reasonable ideas I’ve heard regarding intelligent alien life is that it probably exists but is seperated from us by unbreachable gulfs of space-time. When you’re talking about having to travel 50 light years just to get to the nearest star, that means that even at the speed of light, it would take a lifetime to get there.

    But travelling at that speed would have its own challenges. Becoming particalized would suck. Not to mention, time would speed by for everyone (including any potential alien friends) while it went slowly for you, so by the time you got to some destination, the civillization would probably have died out. Then there would be no home left to go back to either.

    So it’s not even an issue of whether they exist – it’s that unbreachable gulf of space-time that almost guarantees we’ll never really know. And it’s not like any aliens could come to us… they have to play be the same rules of physics we do.

  • CharlesInSoCal

    200,000 Earth-sized planets…
    …and perhaps in time their own life…

    After seeing this excellent and thought-provoking post, I think the overwhelming question on the mind of every reader is obviously: “Are the people there Saved!?”

    Therefore, I had an idea. With the imminent retirement of the Shuttle, instead of silly money-wasting space programs like the “Hubble”, the USA should allocate several trillion dollars to developing Shuttle-like spacecraft that can fly to SN 1987A that would carry millions of King James Bibles to the various planets. (Since all life evolves identically throughout the universe, the people on these planets obviously speak English. And if the KJV was good enough for Saint Paul, it’s good enough for the kindly folks of SN 1987A.)

    Maybe the financial burden of the project should be shared by the Brits, French, Germans and so on, and keeping in mind how much NASA
    and ESA like acronyms, perhaps we can call the project: Joint European & States United Shuttle.

  • Penguin_Factory

    I hope, when you read that number, you feel the same faint tingle of awe that I do. That cold, dark dust cloud enshrouding the dead star potentially contains the seeds of tens of thousands of worlds.

    When you write stuff like this, sometimes I could swear you’re being possessed by Carl Sagan.

  • bassmanpete

    So it’s not even an issue of whether they exist – it’s that unbreachable gulf of space-time that almost guarantees we’ll never really know. And it’s not like any aliens could come to us… they have to play be the same rules of physics we do.

    There may be a whole new branch of physics still to be discovered that will allow travel to distant stars and maybe even galaxies well within a human life span. For all we think we are so advanced, we may be at the level of early last century when it was thought that travelling at 60mph in a vehicle would be impossible because the occupants would suffocate.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    There may be a whole new branch of physics still to be discovered that will allow travel to distant stars and maybe even galaxies well within a human life span. For all we think we are so advanced, we may be at the level of early last century when it was thought that travelling at 60mph in a vehicle would be impossible because the occupants would suffocate.

    That reminds me of an account I read the other day that said some in the 19th century thought that women would not be able to ride trains because their poor lady parts would fly apart under the stresses.

    I’m not betting on a new revolution in physics, though. It’s happened twice before, and it could happen again, but we have no meaningful idea of the actual probabilities.

  • http://theotherweirdo.wordpress.com The Other Weirdo

    And we, the Human Race, the Pinnacle of All That Is and All That Ever Shall Be, we Heirs to Immortality, we shall have lordship and dominion over these planets until the end of all things.

    Seriously, though, it’s wondrous to see the universe expanding and becoming deeper and more complex as we look on.