Spotlight Live: Stellar Explosions and Death Dances

by Bruce Lieberman

When a star dies, its final gasps can trigger the most powerful blasts of energy in the universe.

The Author

Bruce Lieberman

The Researchers

Nicola Omodei
Norbert Schulz

NOTE: Thanks to everyone who joined our discussion. AN INDEX OF QUESTIONS are listed below with time stamps for hearing the answers.

When a star dies, its final gasps can trigger the most powerful blasts of energy in the universe. They can also lead to a bizarre death dance as the voracious corpse of a dead star begins consuming a nearby companion.

On Feb. 5, 2014 a special hangout focused on the recent detection of a dying star igniting the most powerful blast ever seen – something so powerful it radiated energy that was 500 million times that of visible light. Also learn how scientists have discovered that a familiar sight in the skies is actually our earliest view yet of a star being consumed by the remnant of a nearby exploded star. Joining the discussion: two of the astronomers key to these discoveries, Norbert Schulz and Nicola Omodei. What do these discoveries tell us about the death of stars and the birth of immensely energetic phenomena that follow? How do they change our view of the life cycles of stars?

About the Participants (left to right)

  • NICOLA OMODEI - Dr. Omodei led an analysis of observations of the most powerful stellar blast yet detected. A research associate at the Hansen Experimental Physics Laboratory at Stanford University, Dr. Omodei is also an Associate Member of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University.
  • NORBERT SCHULZ - Dr. Schulz was key to the discovery that an exploded star and its binary partner is in fact the youngest of its kind ever identified. Dr. Schulz leads the technical effort to set up observations of this X-ray binary star system, Circinus X-1, and he’s a research scientist at the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • BRUCE LIEBERMAN (moderator) – Bruce is a freelance science writer with nearly 25 years of experience in journalism. Along with The Kavli Foundation, he has also written for Air & Space, Scientific American, Nature and other media outlets about a variety of science topics.

Your Questions

  • What do these two latest discoveries together reveal about stars and the universe -- in the broadest sense? (2:50)
  • Both of these phenomena signal the end of stars, but the beginning of something new. Do stars, or the stuff that makes stars, ever truly "die"? (5:15)
  • Both of these phenomena release titanic amounts of energy from objects that are surprisingly tiny. Where do we think all this energy comes from? (7:05)
  • What is a neutron star? (8:40)
  • How do X-ray binary star systems form and what does the new research tell us about them? (10:50)
  • How did this star system form? (12:50)
  • What was most interesting about the stellar explosion in the new research? (14:30)
  • What are gamma rays? (15:35)
  • Were we able to find out more about the gamma-ray burst because it was closer? (17:40)
  • Can we have a gamma-ray burst that also is followed by the formation of an X-ray binary star system? (18:40)
  • These phenomena seem pretty dangerous if you got close to them. Are we just lucky that neither of these have ever been close to Earth? (21:00)
  • What is the likelihood that one of them could form close to our solar system?
  • Why are gamma-ray bursts more common the farther away we look? (25:10)
  • This binary star system was discovered back in 1971, but astronomers couldn't get a detailed look at it until now. Why is that and what did we find that was new? (27:20)
  • This burst revealed some new things about these phenomena -- namely, that the biggest ones peak in brightness far from the star that triggers them. In terms we can understand, tell us a bit about this? (30:45)
  • What is the biggest open question regarding your research? (34:25)
Written by Bruce Lieberman


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