Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Written in the Stars

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Written in the Stars

Article excerpt

It's a shame that modern astronomy's naming systems are so no-nonsense. We're going to be considering a star that will soon explode within a constellation called Ara. Ptolemy named the constellation in the 2nd century; it means "altar", because the Greeks saw it as the place where the gods made sacrifices and formed alliances. In Chinese astronomy, this area of the sky is known as the "azure dragon of the east".

Meanwhile, a team of modern astronomers is talking about looking within Ara at a cluster of stars it calls Westerlund 1. The star the astronomers are interested in is W26. The instrument they'll be using to look at it is known without irony as the "Very Large Telescope Survey Telescope". Thankfully, what they've found does kindle something in the imagination.

The biggest known star in the universe is about to blow. Its radius is 1,500 times that of the sun but it is only dimly visible. Besides being about 150,000 trillion kilometres from Planet Earth, it's also on the other side of one of the spiral arms of our galaxy. As a result, W26's light passes through a fearful amount of dust and gas before it reaches us.

Janet E Drew of the University of Hertfordshire first spotted W26's potential in pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. According to a paper that she and her team recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, follow-up studies show that it is shedding mass so quickly that it will soon explode as a supernova.

This kind of thing doesn't happen every day. Drew's team is now applying for telescope time in order to take a closer look.

Supernova explosions are not just pretty pictures. In the past, we have used them to seed a revolution in our understanding of the entire universe. Watching how the different colours in the spectrum of the explosion's flash fade away gives us a way of determining not just how far the light travelled to the earth but how the space between the supernova and the earth was expanding during the light's journey. …

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