Mr. Sun Still Loves You

I'm happy to be your sun and I won't kill you for several billion years.
If you’ve been living in or around Chicago this past week your news cycle has been polluted by the official drug dealer of the NFL – accept no substitutions – and Chicago’s crazy mayor who wants dictatorial powers whenever guests come to town. Since Chicago is a hotbed of tourism, I guess that means for ever. And ever and ever …. yeah. I’m sure everything will be fine. But, because of these picayune stories you may have missed out on a couple that probably would have held your interest had you heard them. And I’m not talking about my recently quitting smoking either. Believe it or not I’m talking about something more important than that. In fact, two somethings.

1: A comet is going to crash into the sun and cause it to explode and kill us all!

YEAH!

and, 2: We don’t need no stinking comet, the sun will explode in December of 2012 all on its own!

YEAH, again!

We’ll deal with the first Internet rumor first since it has the benefit of actually having a real comet in the vicinity. The comet is named Lovejoy. They tried to come up with a wimpier name but Percy Dovetonsils was already taken. Anyway, this week Lovejoy angled into the Sun. Given the fact that this is like an ice cream cone attacking a flame thrower, it’s seriously doubtful that Lovejoy was going to accomplish anything except getting melted.

As it turns out, while Lovejoy didn’t cause our solar system to melt, neither did it cause its own demise. Ian O’Neill has the complete story.

You would have been very optimistic if, before Comet Lovejoy’s apparent suicidal near-miss of the sun’s surface, you’d placed a bet on the icy interloper’s survival. But if you did, you’d be laughing all the way to the bank.

This is why I don’t gamble — I was anything but optimistic of the chances the Kreutz Sungrazing comet — officially designated as C/2011 W3 (Lovejoy) — would live through the hellish temperatures it endured as it made the death-defying solar dive.

But as NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) watched the comet emerge from the other side of the sun Thursday evening, Comet Lovejoy proved the doubters wrong and continued its orbit after passing only 87,000 miles above the sun’s photosphere. In doing so, it had endured temperatures of over a million degrees Celsius.

Watch the video of the lucky comet zooming away from the limb of the sun:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72DVbKyAfNQ&w=480&h=360]

“Breaking News! Lovejoy lives! The comet Lovejoy has survived it’s journey around the sun to reemerge on the other side,” exclaimed the SDO’s Twitter feed after seeing the singed comet race away from our nearest star.

It goes to show that, in space, you can never take anything for granted.

The second rumor is a little harder to deal with since people with IQs higher than a turnip are forced to prove a negative. But, Francis Reddy, of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, decided to give it the old school try anyways. And, for the most part, he did okay.

Really? There are people out there who predict — with an unbelievable degree of accuracy — that December 2012 will herald a rare stellar explosion that will wipe out (or at least cripple) life on Earth?

Well, if my email inbox is anything to go by, then yes, I’m sure this little doomsday scenario is doing the rounds. And by the sound of things, NASA is also getting fed up with messages from individuals needlessly worrying about a star that’s about to go “BOOM!”

In an impromptu public space service announcement from the U.S. space agency on Friday, Francis Reddy, of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, went on the record to say: “…astronomers can say with certainty that there is no threatening star close enough to hurt Earth.”

As if the world didn’t have enough doomsday scenarios to worry about — like nonsensical killer solar flares, non-existent Planet X’s, silly geomagnetic reversals, insane pole shifts and hordes of kamikaze lemmings* — doomsayers are apparently circulating the myth that a star is soon to go gangbusters this time next year. Wow.

“Astronomers estimate that, on average, about one or two supernovae explode each century in our galaxy,” says Reddy. “But for Earth’s ozone layer to experience damage from a supernova, the blast must occur less than 50 light-years away.”

Guess what? The nearest star likely to go supernova any time soon is much further than 50 light-years away. Also, the galaxy is a very big place, so the odds of any stellar dramatics even remotely close to the solar system in the next 12 months is vanishingly small.

Reddy goes into some of the details as to how a supernova could cause damage to the Earth’s atmosphere and the life therein — because, let’s face it, a star’s core collapse would be bad news if it were in our cosmic backyard — but as there’s no dying stars around, why be concerned?

But here’s the kicker. What about a gamma-ray burst, the supernova’s big bad cousin?

As a massive star runs out of fuel and collapses, sometimes it may form a black hole. These massive dying stars are called Wolf-Rayet (WR) stars, my favorite stellar objects. If the conditions are right, it is thought that as a WR star collapses and stellar material starts to fall into the newborn singularity, powerful jets of radiation will blast from the exploding star’s poles.

Should Earth be in the line-of-sight of one of these bad boys then, well, bad news for us.

Probably the most scary thing about GRBs is their range. Should Earth be caught in the cross-hairs of a GRB, its radiation would hurt us even if the star was 10,000 light-years distant.

Fortunately, these kinds of local events happen approximately every 15 million years or so, and the nearest gamma-ray burst on record occurred a rather remote 1.3 billion light-years away.

So where are the doomsayers getting their information from if the science (and statistics) is telling us that a nearby supernova or GRB isn’t expected any time soon?

Well, in the effort to build the fear-factor for the impending end of the Mayan “Long Count” calendar (plus an unhealthy dose of superstition and conspiracy), 2012ers are busy trying to sell their personal versions of doom.

Oddly enough, most doomsayers have a book to sell or website to advertise, so I won’t be getting my doomsday “science” from those wingnuts.

*My own fabricated doomsday event. Everyone else is inventing end-of-the-world scenarios, so why can’t I?

Of the scenarios listed, I think kamikaze lemmings is the most plausible. Oh, wait, lemmings are natural kamikazes in the first place.

Darn. Well maybe Ian can get them little planes with little bombs to make it more realistic.

That could be fun.

Anyway, here’s a simple rule of thumb you can use when dealing with rumors like these. If they involve you being able to buy a T-shirt or survival kit, they are a scam. If they involve any form of numerology, they are deluded. If they involve all of the above, plus some religion, they are dangerous.

Just avoid them all and you can live a long, happy, life.

Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, every Thursday morning around 9:10!

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