Friday, March 27, 2015

Stop the Presses!

Well, you all and pretty much everyone in the world has just been going through life assuming that Nova Vulpeculae 1670 was a star that went nova in 1670 and then became one of the dimmest novas ever observed.

But that turns out to be wrong. What astronomers observed back then was not a nova, in which a star explodes on its own, but a kind of collision between two stars that can be even brighter than an actual nova. That kind of event leaves behind an entirely different stellar remnant than a nova does, so when astronomers over the years aimed telescopes at where Nova Vulpeculae 1670 had been seen, they didn't see anything.

In the 1980s, a team searching that region of sky found a faint nebula, or cloud of gas, at Nova Vul 1670's location, but novae don't usually leave that kind of nebulae. More recent exploration with radio telescopes and other instruments showed more or less what was now where Nova Vul 1670 had been. And it was weird. For one, there was too much stuff overall. When a star explodes in a nova, it tends to scatter its material over a wide range, but Nova Vul 1670 was a lot denser than that. And for another, it was denser with stuff that a nova explosion doesn't leave behind.

Eventually, astronomers determined that Nova Vul 1670 had actually been a collision between two stars that causes a kind of explosion called a "red transient." This is not a Marxist hobo, but instead a kind of stellar explosion that has a distinct red tinge to it when seen though a telescope. Often when two stars collide they will become a larger star. But sometimes the combination creates enough instability that the pair both explode, and the explosion looks like a nova.

The telescopes of 1670 were probably not able to distinguish some of the details, meaning the drawings and observational notes they left did not provide all of the clues needed to figure out what Nova Vul 1670 had been.

Although it really doesn't change much in anybody's everyday world -- even that of the astronomers who've been studying Nova Vul 1670 trying to learn what it was -- it's still kind of cool to me to know that even if it takes 340 years, we can eventually figure out some of the weird stuff in the universe.

Although I have a feeling it's going to take a much bigger chunk of the calendar to figure out Marxism.

No comments: