Kilonovae and Science Fiction

kilonova

From Science & Technology, Oct 22, 2017

Space science is glorious in its beauty. Over the past century, scientists have created increasingly better technology to give us Earth-bound folks unforgettable views of distant stars and galaxies as well as a deeper understanding of what lies in our own system. If you are a fan like me, you get news feed from Space.com or Nasa for weekly updates of incredible visions in the heavens. Astronomy picture of the day (apod.com) also provides beautiful material.

This week was outstanding by even our jaded standards. We witnessed incredible encounter involved two neutron stars colliding. The event was the fourth gravitational wave to be announced and the first that involved objects made of matter instead of black holes. Because of this, it showed us aspects that were never before seen, including the formation of heavy elements such as gold and platinum. It may be planet-fixated thinking but I thought all the elements that were available now was all there ever will be out among all the galaxies. This week’s news implied even the creation of raw material like gold, platinum, and uranium are cyclic in nature. It also implied that the ring on my finger or the earrings I’m wearing might have come from star stuff billions of years ago. That is a really cool concept.

As you might know, a supernova occurs when a massive star dies. The star swells, becoming brighter then fades over weeks or months. The power produced is mind-boggling and destroys the nearby planets in the star’s system. It also generates a neutron star or a black hole.

A kilonova occurs between two neutron stars or a neutron star and a black hole. Keep in mind that a neutron star is super dense. A teaspoon of neutron matter is under such a high gravitational pull that it weighs in the tons range. You can learn more about neutron stars here but suffice to say, we won’t be landing on one ever. Or a person could land but never take off, breathe, or move again.

Novae are not frequent events so I can only speculate that kilonovae might occur perhaps once in several lifetimes, so watching this one was a tremendous event. According to NPR‘s “Astronomers Strike Gravitational Gold in Colliding Neutron Stars, telescopes across the world and in space all pointed themselves at this unexpected event. Some have said that it looked so much like the predicted model that some researchers felt a sense of déjà vu. The article also features an artistic rendering of what the collision looked like, including an outward blast of gold, platinum, and uranium.

From a science fiction standpoint, this collision of powerful stars boggles my mind. I can picture the 25th or 30th century equivalent of the 49er prospectors in small, scrappy ships hovering around a supernova or kilonova. With particle scoops dropped and opened and shields in place, they skim the debris cloud of newly formed elements. Riches await and fortune favors the bold who take on the danger of dancing across the nova’s explosive wake.

Men will always need raw materials and nuclear power sources. In the bright future of space exploration, they will cross the galaxies in mining ships, colonies, tourist excursions, and more, settling, excavating, hustling, and profiting from what nature gives us. In those ideas alone, good science fiction thrives.

But for a few moments in the tremendous time continuum, let’s take a look at the beauty out there and breathe in awe-inspired reflection of the enormity of space. Like the carbon cycle or the water cycle here on earth, elements are born, evolved, and consumed only to burst forward again to form planets, stars, and galaxies. Everything that dies, rots or rusts away is reborn. This cyclic power is fearsome, humbling, and, as proved with this event, quite exquisite.

 

Side note: Physicist Robert L. Forward wrote an excellent fiction book in the late 1980s about life developing on a neutron start in Dragon’s Egg, which is still available at Amazon.com. I loved this book because he got not only the physics correct, but he also did a great job with the biology and development of intelligence. I met Dr. Forward at a relativity conference in Dallas for a few moments. He is the only author of the many I’ve met over the years that I turned into a squealing fangirl for. I was that surprised and pleased to see him.

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