Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Scientist predicts stellar catastrophe

Get ready for a celestial “doomsday event.”

Well, it won’t be doomsday for those of us on Earth, but DU Astronomy Professor Robert Stencel says new findings he presented at a June conference show that a far-distant star may be headed for big trouble within a few decades.

The star, called Epsilon Aurigae, is destined for a cataclysmic event, essentially finding itself cut in half by another, hidden celestial body. It is a bright star in the autumn/winter constellation Auriga, the Charioteer.

After presenting the discovery, National Geographic NewsSky & Telescope and many online scientific news services started reporting Stencel’s research.

At the center of the effort is a study of a super-giant star with about 12 to 15 times the mass of the sun that is being eclipsed by another massive object, possibly some sort of giant disc — 930 million miles across — that is strangely invisible.

Variations in the short-term light and in the very long-term eclipse patterns have been noticed. As the frequency of these changes increase, Stencel sees a chance for “stellar fireworks” by the middle of this century if, for example, a protoplanet forming in the disk were about to be swallowed by the central mass of the disk itself.

“Similar objects, called ‘Hot Jupiters,’ are now known to be widespread among exoplanetary systems discovered during the past 20 years,” Stencel says.

Stencel says that he and collaborators used modern computer data analysis to compare historical reports of the regular eclipses and spotted a pattern of unexpected variance.

“These changes offer a chance to examine the dynamics of rapidly changing stellar disks on a human timescale and an opportunity for the public to see that stars change,” Stencel says.

But people of earth need not worry about the fallout from such a massive blast. The star is some 2,000 light-years away. A light-year is the distance something moving at the speed of light can travel in a year.

“It won’t be affecting us physically, except by light,” Stencel says. “It would take millions of years for materials in a blast, if there were to be any kind of blast, to reach us.”

[Editor’s note: This story was updated on Aug. 26 to correct a typo. We regret the error.]

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