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Friday, February 07, 2003

Brighter Than a Thousand Suns

Looks like some astronomers in the Canaries have discovered a good candidate for an imminent supernova in the star Rho Cassiopeiae (its friends call it Rho Cas). The press release says that it may go supernova "at any time", which could mean tomorrow or in a century or two.

Here's the abstract for the work, which leads to links to the full article, for those of you who are at universities that have subscriptions. Now, the press release says it shed three percent of its mass in 200 days, which does sound awfully quick. The thing is, presumably it was observed over 200 days to prepare this paper, then the paper took a couple months minimum, and it probably took about six months to appear in print after the paper was submitted. So what's the star been doing since then? I don't know how many of these mass-loss episodes a star could go through before it blows (and probably, neither does anyone else).

The web site has an mpeg which shows "artist's renderings" of the star shedding its outer layers and an animated spectrum, so you can see how the mass loss changes the spectrum. That's really, really neat. They've got an artist's rendering because spectrographic data is a dead snooze for the layman. At that distance, an image is probably not going to mean much for the average punter (warning: too lazy to run the calculations, even in my head).

Don't stock up on sunscreen just yet; at 10,000 light years, we're not in much danger.

Via those nervous nellies in The Corner.