This week something great for us (but possibly bad for someone else) has occurred ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.’ Sci-Fi? No…it’s real.
M74 is a spiral galaxy in the part of the sky where we can find constellation Pisces. The galaxy is not IN that constellation as those stars are much closer. M74 is far beyond those stars and our galaxy entirely. Think of it as standing in a woods and seeing many trees around you, but through a clearing in the distance you see another blob of green that you know is a different patch of woods.
This week a star in that galaxy exploded, creating a supernova. When this happens, a star collapses in on its own mass, and during that process blows itself apart in one of the most violent and catastrophic events in our universe; an explosion so powerful that during that moment, all natural elements heavier than iron that we know to exist are fused together in the intense heat. If you are wearing a gold ring right now…that gold came from an exploding star. There’s no other force in nature powerful enough to fuse those atoms together.
Now, for the Star Wars reference: M74 is 30 MILLION light years away. So…that being said we have the ‘far, far away’ part, but what about ‘A long time ago?’ A light year is the distance light can travel in a year, so the light of this explosion just getting here now means it blew up 30 million years…in the past. A Sci-Fi example:
Let’s say somewhere in this star’s neighborhood there was intelligent life; much more intelligent than we are to know when a star will explode, and how to get away from it. Let’s say these creatures fashioned a ship, got out of dodge, and relocated somewhere safer. Those people have been on the cosmic lamb since the Oligocene period here on Earth. Forget our ancestors…the first creatures to be categorized as the eventual HORSE…were just getting started.
Realistically though, it’s likely that scenario didn’t happen. However, the odds ARE quite possible that just as we have countless stars in our sky (or trees in our woods) someone could have been nearby when this thing popped off and they REALLY would have seen a show. In a given supernova, the star can explode with more energy than what it put out during its entire lifetime combined. Imagine an extremely sunny day, then multiply that by the 5 billion years our sun has been lit up just to give you an example of what that might be like. Around 1054a.d. this happened to a star in our own galaxy close enough to Earth to see. In almost every culture at the time, witnesses commented on a ‘new star’ visible in the DAY. That my friends is pretty bright.
Our sun? It’s too small. It will puff up like a balloon as it starts to burn heavier elements and eventually grow to slowly engulf the inner planets; Earth likely included. After that, the sun will slowly blow off its layers, and end up a small white-dwarf that will burn for a long, long time as it slowly cools down. Pretty boring, but it will be a gorgeous display for those far enough away to watch it safely about 5 billion years from now.
So can you see M74’s supernova? It’s just too far away to be seen with the naked eye. There are lots of pictures coming in online such as this one I snagged from Sky and Telescope. It’s pretty cool to consider. Every other bright dot in this shot is a star in our own galaxy. The fuzzy spiral beyond that is a different galaxy 30 million years in the past; 30 million years of traveling at the speed of light distant, yet that little dot in the crosshairs is shining so bright that it looks like it’s just one of our local stars.
We live in an intriguing little universe my friends.
(Photo Credit: Ernesto Guido & Nick Howes)
Click on the link below to hear it from the pros!