The Ghost Star

Twenty-one million years ago, in the Pinwheel Galaxy – a close neighbor in cosmic terms – a white dwarf star exploded.  This week, as the moon sets early, we will have the rare chance to see this one-time sun’s final blaze of glory from our own back yards, with just a small telescope or a pair of binoculars.  Scientists are calling this a once in a generation event; type 1a supernovas like this are usually much farther away.

How do you find it?  Locate the last two stars on the Big Dipper’s tail, and imagine an equilateral triangle pointing north:

According to a Washington Post article, because type 1a supernovas are equal in intensity, astronomers use them to refine calculations of distance.  In the 1990’s, Robert Kirshner of Harvard:  “led a team that leveraged this property to make one of the biggest discoveries of the past century: The universe is flying apart, rapidly accelerating.

To explain this, cosmologists were forced into an uncomfortable conclusion. Either gravity does not work the way it is supposed to, or a mysterious force is pushing galaxies apart at a quickening pace. They called this unknown force “dark energy” and still have little idea what it is, even though they are able to calculate that it constitutes an astounding 73 percent of all mass and energy in the universe.”

Telescopes large and small, both on earth and in space (the Hubell) will be trained on this event, in the hopes that it may even clarify the nature of dark energy.  Though I don’t have a telescope, my father’s old film camera has a telephoto lens, and I’m hoping that on a tripod, we may be able to see the pinwheel galaxy.

I find this of interest from more than a scientific (or aging Trekkie) perspective.  The world’s religions tell us that things are not what they seem.  Most of the time we can only approach such truths through inference, faith, or meditation.  For the next few days we will have the chance to turn our physical eyes on something dramatic that has not existed physically for millions of years.

Something to think about…

4 thoughts on “The Ghost Star

  1. Evidently, someone missed the Einstein class. Super novae are. The light from a super nova does not arrive in our binoculars in 21 million years, It arrives in relative time. Just like the train with a bouncing ball, it is relative — not 21 million years. (We measure years in oblong circles, Light is relative). You do not understand. At least I know that I do not understand.


    • You’re right: both I and the Washington Post science writer referenced the grade school model of a light year – the distance light travels in a year, so a distance of 21M miles takes 21M years to cover.

      Still, grade school models have their use. Most of the semiconductor engineers and physicists I worked with still use the solar system model of atoms in their work, despite the fact that quantum physics has shown that isn’t the way things work.

      I’ll amend 21 million years to say the star we are “seeing” has been gone for a very long time.


  2. You are astonishing. I cannot believe a man of science would respond to what I wrote. You are the antithesis of arrogance. Thank you.


    PS. My first journalism professor said, “I see we have several students who have transferred in from the physics school. Interesting. We don’t have any journalism students transferring to the physics curriculum.”


  3. Based on the fact that we are only here for a whisper, I guess it doesn’t really matter how long ago it died 🙂 Actually my time on earth will be over before the death display will be over… hhmmm that is something to think about.


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