We Can Predict When Stars Will Explode

Illustration for article titled We Can Predict When Stars Will Explode

Need to get rid of a bunch of space trash, or jumpstart a wormhole? Now you can, at least if you can get near enough to a neutron star when it's heading into explosion mode. Using NASA's Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE), some astronomers have made an extraordinary breakthrough: they've discovered how to predict when neutron stars will unleash massive explosions. What this means, in essence, is that stellar explosions can be compared to Old Faithful, the geyser in Yellowstone Park that erupts at precise times.


According to a release from NASA:

"We found a clock that ticks slower and slower, and when it slows down too much, boom! The bomb explodes," says lead author Diego Altamirano of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

The bursts occur on a neutron star, which is the collapsed remnant of a massive star that exploded in a supernova. The neutron star belongs to a binary system that can be described as a ticking time bomb. Hydrogen and helium gas from a companion star spirals onto the neutron star, slowly accumulating on its surface until it heats up to a critical temperature. Suddenly, the hydrogen and helium begin to fuse uncontrollably into heavier elements, igniting a thermonuclear flame that quickly spreads around the entire star. The resulting explosion appears as a bright flash of X-rays.

These bursts, which can occur several times per day from the same neutron star, release more energy in just 10 to 100 seconds than our Sun radiates in an entire week. Put another way, the energy is equivalent to 100 fifteen-megaton hydrogen bombs exploding simultaneously over each postage-stamp-size patch of the neutron star's surface.

Good to know for those long interstellar flights.

NASA satellite pins down time of explosions [Eurekalert]


Josh Wimmer

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