A stellar explosion
June 12, 2014 6:22 AM   Subscribe

Between 2002 and 2006, the Hubble telescope took photos of an explosion coming from a red variable star in the constellation Monoceros, about 20,000 light years from the Sun. This is a time-lapse video of those photos.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (36 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
Now that is something. According to wikipedia, that star is 20k light years away . . . so, we are watching a time-lapse video of something that happened 20,000 years ago?
posted by Think_Long at 6:28 AM on June 12, 2014


Why do none of the theories suggest that an alien race blew up the star as part of a massive intergalactic war? That's my hypothesis.
posted by something something at 6:38 AM on June 12, 2014 [7 favorites]


It should be noted that Monoceros means "Unicorn" (which if you reverse a couple letters is "Unicron" which... I sure hope isn't a portent!)

I was confused on some of the phrasing at io9 describing it and based on the comments there it seems as though the dust/plasma we're seeing isn't what's exploding... That stuff was already there, what's happening is a light burst that's illuminating all this stuff as it goes outward?

Or is that dust the actual stuff that's exploding?
posted by symbioid at 6:39 AM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


Stars are generally surrounded by gas/dust material they've thrown out in their lifetime along with material that is in their stellar system. As such, when a star has a radiative outburst (gives out a huge amount of light for whatever reason), the light moves outward, striking the gas around the star, and causing it to light up in successive layers. Astronomers call this a "light echo," where the light is going from star --> gas --> us, and then from star --> gas farther out --> us, etc, etc.

What's incredible about this time lapse is that it's an ASTRONOMICAL EVENT where we have time resolved imaging of something CHANGING over a series of years. In astronomy, we generally observe things that are quite static, or they change in quite subtle ways over the time we observe them. This is a beautiful animation composed of quite a few fantastic images (in multiple filters) that are an excellent treasure trove for the V838 Mon scientists.
posted by RubixsQube at 6:45 AM on June 12, 2014 [8 favorites]


Questions for people who know these things: What's the actual period of time covered in the video? Is this false or enhanced color, and if so, what would the raw video look like? How come it looks like the background image of stars is a static image with the time lapse overlaid on it, and what's with the starburst effects? Is that real?
posted by bassomatic at 6:47 AM on June 12, 2014


Woo! Glad that didn't happen any closer to us. Beautiful and awesome in the old sense of the word.
posted by Mister_A at 6:47 AM on June 12, 2014


I just love these videos of actual, visible change happening out there in the galaxy.

Here's one (based on actual observations) showing stars orbiting the Milky Way's supermassive black hole.

I thought I had seen an animation of Eta Carinae's billowing explosion, but I'm not able to find it this morning.
posted by General Tonic at 6:52 AM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


bassomatic:

1) I think that this represents a time lapse of observations from the years 2002 - 2006, so this is how the light echo is propagating over that time period.

2) This is probably enhanced to be prettier, such that we are able to capture more light than would be possible with the human eye. I bet that the colors are a little enhanced as well to differentiate the different physical processes. So, if you were floating in space near this, you'd probably not be able to see the light echo, I wouldn't think, since our eyes aren't nearly as sensitive. I don't know what the colors represent, since I don't know what the filters were that were used to observe this. I'll go and look it up.

3) Either - the person who put this video together just took the background stars and kept them the same from the first image in the time lapse series (likely), or the stars and their diffraction spikes didn't change from image to image (unlikely). Since the person who put this together wanted us to focus on the light echo, it's probably the former.

4) I don't know what you mean by "the starburst effects." Can you point to a specific point in the video?
posted by RubixsQube at 6:54 AM on June 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


Now we know the answer to this question.
posted by bondcliff at 6:55 AM on June 12, 2014


bassomatic - it looks like the images were taken using the Hubble Space Telescope Advanced Camera for Surveys with B (blue), V (green), and I (near-infrared) filters, so these images are trying to replicate what would be observed with human vision, although presumably these images were taken with exposure times that collect more light than our eyes would see.

The source is this Nature article describing some of the initial results from the light echo analysis from Bond et al.
posted by RubixsQube at 7:00 AM on June 12, 2014


RubixsQube: What I mean by "starburst effect" is the sort of twinkly effect on the background stars. Like this. Actually, what I think you're calling diffraction spikes.

And thanks for the answers!
posted by bassomatic at 7:04 AM on June 12, 2014


Per my back of the envelope calculations, the gamma ray burst should hit Earth tomorrow, noon GST.

It's sure been nice knowing all of you.
posted by Renoroc at 7:07 AM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


Some scientists believe V838 Monocerotis was a supernova, just a fairly unique one.

What if it is only a slightly unique one? Or maybe they're underestimating it and it is extremely unique? I miss editors.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:07 AM on June 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


Looks like the Culture fucked up again.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:14 AM on June 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


Probably a bit more dramatic than our meager end will be...
posted by jim in austin at 7:14 AM on June 12, 2014


The diffraction spikes are very pretty but it still feeds odd that they were left in. They're an artifact of our observation tool, and a visual distraction from the actual phenomenon we're being shown.

Sure are pretty, though.
posted by alms at 7:28 AM on June 12, 2014


Either the Death star maiden voyage or Romulan target practice.
posted by brent at 7:30 AM on June 12, 2014


alms - I don't know a good way of "removing" the diffraction spikes from an image, considering they're part of the observed data, and they have to be accounted for. Yes, in photoshop you can go through and remove them, but I don't know if I agree that they're that visually distracting.
posted by RubixsQube at 7:37 AM on June 12, 2014


Think_Long: yes. Though I often find this way of thinking about when events happened as not very useful. Keep in mind there is absolutely no way that an observer on Earth could have found out about this event earlier than 2002, even though it "happened" 20K years ago. No effect from this event could have reached our position in space before this, and so did it really "happen" yet in any meaningful way?

Consider this: tomorrow, something will happen to you. Could be good, could be bad, could be important, could be trivial. That event can be said to exist in spacetime, one light-day away from your space-time coordinates at this instant. There is no way for you to know what at event is, but you are hurtling towards it at speed c (according to you, in your local frame, this movement is all in the time-like direction, none of it is movement in space). Has that event happened "yet"? Probably not, since it is outside your "light-cone," which is the set of all events which are close enough to you to have light reach you from them.

In the same way, you can say that "right now" some light 6 times further away from us than Pluto (1 light day), is zipping towards Earth right now. That light is carrying some news to you. Could be news of aliens, could be the harbinger of a gamma-ray pulse that will sterilize the planet. Could be (and most likely is) harmless light from one of the few tens of thousands of stars visible to the naked eye at night, with no special information unless you are an astronomer on an observation run. That light is exactly the same distance from you in space-time as whatever event on Earth will happen to you tomorrow. The event that brought that light into existence is as unknowable to you today as whatever random event will happen to you tomorrow. In either case, you must wait a day to find out. Why say that one event (the one emitting the light that will hit your eye tomorrow) happened "in the past" and one event is still in your future? Both are equally outside your light cone

So yes, there is a way in which you can say that this stellar explosion is 20,000 years old. There is another, equally valid, way in which you can say that this event is brand new, unfolding at this moment as we watch. The way to square this logical circle is the experimental fact of relativity.

As an aside, because writing long comments in My Jam, the one time when I consistently do refer to far-away events as occurring "X years" in the past is when talking about cosmological evolution. Things like "when the Big Bang happened," "when the CMB decoupled." In this case, I am implicitly referring to times relative to the frame of reference in which the CMB is isotropic. This is the "rest frame" of the Big Bang. We are actually moving relative to this frame at something on the order of a 1000 km/s, a fact that needs to be subtracted when looking at the Cosmic Microwave Background, but is otherwise a small perturbation. But even if we were moving through the CMB rest frame at 0.999999... the speed of light, with some immense time-compression factor, it would still make more sense to discuss when things in the Universe happened relative to the CMB rest frame, rather than our moving one.

Also, these pictures are very beautiful.
posted by physicsmatt at 7:39 AM on June 12, 2014 [16 favorites]


If you zoom in and enhance, you can see video of the earth from 40,000 years ago.

Spoilers: their internet was out.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:54 AM on June 12, 2014


FWIW, this video is from October 2006. Glad to see it get picked up again, it really is astonishing. I'm always surprised when some cosmic event like this happens on the human timescale of a couple of years.
posted by Nelson at 8:10 AM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


No effect from this event could have reached our position in space before this, and so did it really "happen" yet in any meaningful way?

I'm not sure what you're trying to achieve by writing off the concepts of space and time and the speed of light with narcissism.
posted by Sys Rq at 8:12 AM on June 12, 2014


Sys Rq, I suppose that should read "did it really happen yet in in any meaningful way according to me?"

The only way to reconcile various paradoxes in relativity is to recognize that there is no privileged frame of reference in which events can be said to occur in a particular order. So yes, events that have not entered my past light cone have not happened yet. To me. In the same way, if I perform an event, the light of which has not passed into your past light cone, that event can be said to not have happened yet according to you. Neither of us is wrong, and with careful application of the principles of relativity, we can reconcile any confusion that our separate labeling of time and space might cause. This argument can be repeated for every observer, particle, or point of space-time in the Universe: no one has omniscient knowledge of all events in space-time. Hell, even your feet are about 5 or 6 ns in the past relative to your brain.

This is getting to be a bit of a derail, but someone asked up top, and I do think it's a useful discussion to have when getting your mind around the huge distances involved in astronomy. If you want to say that this event occurred 20k years ago, that's fine and correct, from a certain point of view. But it is my experience that this way of speaking does tend to make people think that this long-ago event could have influenced us before the moment we first saw it (after all, it happened so long ago...), and explaining that there's an equally valid way to view this event as just occurring I think helps clarify why that is not the case.
posted by physicsmatt at 8:23 AM on June 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


If you want to say that this event occurred 20k years ago, that's fine and correct, from a certain point of view

physicsmatt said I was correct so ima go apply to the NIH.
posted by Think_Long at 8:31 AM on June 12, 2014


RubixCube: 2) This is probably enhanced to be prettier

There is definitely some interpolation going on. If you watch closely at high definition, you can see the edges of the cloud grow in one direction, then suddenly shift directions each time the video hits a new key frame. I love that we have technology that can "fill in the gaps" so seamlessly, but there's an unnaturalness to the movement that creeps me out for some reason.
(The same thing happens to me whenever I watch a Samsung TV with "Auto Motion")
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:07 AM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


I for one think the use of morphing between separate images and the use of a single background plate of stars to be a little disingenuous. Science fail!
posted by Captain Chesapeake at 9:12 AM on June 12, 2014


Popular Ethics - Yeah, there's definitely smoothing / interpolation between the frames, so that it looks like there's motion, and yeah, that smoothing is definitely unnatural. Also, it tends to muddy the point, which is that we're seeing a fast moving light outburst move its way through existing material, rather than a big cloud that's getting larger (although, to be fair, some of the gas is indeed moving, caught up in the radiation). But I think that it serves its purpose, which is to get people looking at a neat astronomical phenomenon that is occurring on year timescales, even if it does use the same background stars.
posted by RubixsQube at 9:16 AM on June 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


The video source labels it a "morphing eight images". Couldn't quite find all 8, but here's 6 images 2002–2004 (hi-res). It's still pretty fucking astonishing even without the artistic license of the video. Personally I think the animation makes it Science Success!, at least in terms of getting the viewer's interest to learn more.
posted by Nelson at 9:17 AM on June 12, 2014 [2 favorites]




Either - the person who put this video together just took the background stars and kept them the same from the first image in the time lapse series (likely), or the stars and their diffraction spikes didn't change from image to image (unlikely). Since the person who put this together wanted us to focus on the light echo, it's probably the former.

I had the same thought at first about the foreground stars not seeming to change, but if you compare earlier frames and later frames, you can see the diffraction spikes get longer. Presumably as the surface brightness of the nebula decreased, they had to increase the exposure times.

The ACS is a wicked stable instrument, though! I imagine they didn't have to do too much tweaking.
posted by BrashTech at 9:35 AM on June 12, 2014


the video does not disappoint, the lack of JJ Abrams lens flare jokes does.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:38 AM on June 12, 2014


BrashTech - I didn't notice that! You're right! That would be pretty awesome. I guess, looking at the individual frames from the Hubble Heritage site, the stars do look to be quite similar. In the animated gif that cellphone posted, you can see small variations in individual stars, although this could be an artifact of the gif. Either way, that's awesome.
posted by RubixsQube at 9:44 AM on June 12, 2014


Ahead Warp Nine. Sulu, get us out of here!
Presumably that satisfies someone.

you can see the diffraction spikes get longer

I'm not sure they do -- I think it's one of those color illusions myself. (Getting that this is false color anyway.)

For myself, I'm totally OK with the age thing and the frame of reference thing -- I'm just still so fuckin' impressed with humans that we can design something that can resolve an image of something that far away with this amount of clarity. We rock, is what I'm sayin'.

(The Wikipedia says there's stellar radius of 400x our own sun, but does not give an estimate of the size of the light echo, which is how big the whole thing is, so I'm not sure about the actual scale of what I'm looking at. But still. 20K ly away.)

What if it is only a slightly unique one? Or maybe they're underestimating it and it is extremely unique?

One estimate is that there is only one unicorn for every four couples ... er, what's this thread about, again?

Another possibility is that V838 Monocerotis may have swallowed its giant planets. If one of the planets entered into the atmosphere of the star, the stellar atmosphere would have begun slowing down the planet. As the planet penetrated deeper into the atmosphere, friction would become stronger and kinetic energy would be released into the star more rapidly.

Rule 34! Rule 34!
posted by dhartung at 10:13 AM on June 12, 2014


That event can be said to exist in spacetime, one light-day away from your space-time coordinates at this instant. There is no way for you to know what at event is, but you are hurtling towards it at speed c (according to you, in your local frame, this movement is all in the time-like direction, none of it is movement in space

This comment, in combination with this post on Physics Stack Exchange is breaking my brain.
posted by odinsdream at 10:22 AM on June 12, 2014


Down with lens flare. Lens flare does not belong in science!
posted by Mo Nickels at 4:01 PM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


Down with lens flare. Lens flare does not belong in science!

Oh, I totally agree, and I wish we could take it out of our useful science images. Alas, those flares are diffraction spikes produced (probably) by support structures for the secondary mirror in front of the Hubble primary mirror. They're really in the data as returned by the camera.

Total aside: refracting telescopes don't have these spikes, because there does not need to be anything in the optical path between the primary lens and collecting elements at the end. But it is hard to get a large lens with the right clarity (low enough absorption) and achromatic behavior, let alone one that is space-qualified. That's why all big telescopes - on the ground or in space - are usually reflectors.

But with a reflector, you either need asymmetric optics for a clear aperture, which is expensive (see, e.g., the massive Green Bank telescope, about 300 feet across. It was horrendously expensive to design...) - or you need support structures for a secondary to collect light at the primary focus, which causes annoying diffraction spikes.

(And to pile aside on aside, I didn't know that there was a whole art form to designing aperture rings on cameras to produce good bokeh, to go along with lens flare.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 10:22 AM on June 13, 2014


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