You’re sitting at home, reading this, wondering calmly how much dynamite it will take to rid your yard of a chipmunk. Or maybe you’re blithely wondering if strapping a jet engine to your Volvo would interfere with your insurance. Whatever it is I’m sure that you mean no harm and, in fact, when pressed later by the police, will attribute only the most benign motives to the fact that there is a crater the size of a swimming pool in your yard or that there is a Volvo stuck in brick wall 45 feet off the ground. And I will believe you because I know that you’re a mere amateur and can only harm some property whereas it’s people like Bruce Fegley, Katharina Lodders and Laura Schaefer who can get together and do some serious damage. As Jennifer Ouellette writes, they know how to blow up a planet.
One sure-fire way to grab an audience’s attention is to vaporize a planet, amirite? We saw the destruction of Vulcan in Star Trek, the end of Krypton in the Christopher Reeves-era Superman, while the Death Star vaporized Alderaan in Star Wars: A New Hope.
As for Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams went all in, vaporizing the Earth right off the bat, all because an alien race known as the Vogons want to make way for a hyperspatial express route, leaving poor Arthur to roam about the Milky Way in his bathrobe.
But can you really vaporize a planet? According to the latest computer simulations by a couple of planetary scientists in St. Louis, you betcha! As outlined in their new paper in The Astrophysical Journal, Bruce Fegley and his colleagues (Katharina Lodders and Laura Schaefer) mathematically constructed a couple of model “Super-Earths” and put them through a series of atmospheric simulations.
The object wasn’t really to study how to destroy the Earth. Fegley et al were trying to learn more about the kinds of atmospheres most likely to be found on Super-Earths — i.e., exoplanets with masses that are more than that of Earth but less than that of Neptune, while still being rocky in nature, instead of, say, a gas giant.
Having detailed knowledge of likely chemical compositions could help astronomers who hunt for such planets find them. And one way of gaining that knowledge is to build computer models of Super-Earths and vaporize them.
Most exoplanets within that size range that have been found are gaseous in nature, because they orbit so close to their host stars that any rocky stuff gets melted. (How Stuff Works has an excellent summary of the various techniques astronomers use to hunt for exoplanets.)
For instance, using photometry, astronomers can detect an exoplanet as it transits the host star, because of predictable periodic dimming of a star’s brightness as the planet momentarily blocks its light. Astronomers can also determine the chemical composition of said planet’s atmosphere because the star’s light gets filtered through that atmosphere — think of it as stellar spectroscopy.
This, in turn, provides clues as to the planet’s density, because the gases in the atmosphere likely came about because of vaporized rock. So it would be nice to have tidy simulated models to compare with the measured spectra of actual exoplanets.
One model Super-Earth had a continental crust just like our Earth, dominated by granite, while the other simulated Earth’s composition before its crust formed, when it was mostly bulk silicate. (Water is the key ingredient in getting Earth today from that precursor Earth. Without it, our planet’s crust would more closely resemble Venus.)
Then they plugged in the likely surface temperatures of observed Super-Earths, ranging from between 270 to 1700 degrees Celsius, just to see what would happen to the atmosphere. “The vapor pressure of the liquid rock increases as you heat it, just as the vapor pressure of water increases as you bring a pot to boil,” Fegley explained via press release. “Ultimately this puts all the constituents of rick into the atmosphere.”
In both models, the atmospheres would likely be mostly steam and carbon dioxide. Once the Super-Earths achieved temperatures above 760 degrees Celsius, there would also be sulfur dioxide. Think an especially steamy Venus.
And at temperatures higher than 1430 degrees Celsius, the uber-heated rock would produce silicon monoxide vapor. Even exoplanetary atmospheres have “weather,” so should a “storm front” move through at those extreme temperatures, the simulations showed that the silicon monoxide could condense and produce “pebble rain.”
Crank the temperature really, really, high, and you wouldn’t just vaporize the Earth’s crust and mantle. Theoretically, at least, you could destroy the entire planet. “You’re left with a big ball of steaming gas that’s knocking you on the head with pebbles and droplets of liquid iron,” said Fegley. “But we didn’t put that into the paper because the exoplanets the astronomers are finding are only partially vaporized.”
Or maybe they just didn’t want to give the Vogons any bright ideas.
Before we move on, I do feel the need to share some Vogon poetry with you.
See, see the deceased sky
Marvel at its big puce depths.
Tell me, Ryan do you
Wonder why the platypus ignores you?
Why its foobly stare
makes you feel snarky.
I can tell you, it is
Worried by your buznippity facial growth
That looks like
What’s more, it knows
Your thrust potting shed
Smells of cough drop.
Everything under the big deceased sky
Asks why, why do you even bother?
You only charm roqueforts.
I know, it brings a tear to my eye too.
But as long as we’re blowing up planets we should take a look at one of the most famous planetary explosions of all time. Yes, I am talking about Krypton. Internationally renowned astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, was taxed with a silly thing. He was asked to see if there was a planet that could truly have been the home of Superman. So he busted out his slide rule, grabbed some galactic maps and hammered lots of coffee and, after a lot of work, said, “Okay, I found it.”
And everyone went “Wait? Really?”
And he said, “Yes, really. It’s right here.”
And damn if he wasn’t right. Mike Wall, from Space.com, has the whole story.
A prominent astrophysicist has pinned down a real location for Superman’s fictional home planet of Krypton.
Krypton is found 27.1 light-years from Earth, in the southern constellation Corvus (The Crow), says Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium in New York City. The planet orbits the red dwarf star LHS 2520, which is cooler and smaller than our sun.
Tyson performed the celestial sleuthing at the request of DC Comics, which wanted to run a story about Superman’s search for his home planet.
The new book — Action Comics Superman #14, titled “Star Light, Star Bright” — comes out Wednesday (Nov. 7). Tyson appears within its pages, aiding the Man of Steel on his quest.
“As a native of Metropolis, I was delighted to help Superman, who has done so much for my city over all these years,” Tyson said in a statement. “And it’s clear that if he weren’t a superhero he would have made quite an astrophysicist.”
You’ll have to read “Star Light, Star Bright” to find out just how Superman and Tyson pinpoint Krypton. For amateur astronomers who want to spot the real star LHS 2520 in the night sky, here are its coordinates:
Right Ascension: 12 hours 10 minutes 5.77 seconds
Declination: -15 degrees 4 minutes 17.9 seconds
Proper Motion: 0.76 arcseconds per year, along 172.94 degrees from due north
Superman was born on Krytpon but was launched toward Earth as an infant by his father, Jor-El, just before the planet’s destruction. After touching down in Kansas, Superman was raised as Clark Kent by a farmer and his wife.
Now Superman will apparently know exactly where he came from.
“This is a major milestone in the Superman mythos that gives our super hero a place in the universe,” DC Entertainment co-publisher Dan DiDio said in a statement. “Having Neil deGrasse Tyson in the book was one thing, but by applying real-world science to this story he has forever changed Superman’s place in history. Now fans will be able to look up at the night’s sky and say, ‘That’s where Superman was born.'”
A buddy of mine has a computerized telescope and, yes, we plugged in the coordinates and, yes, you can kind of see the star. And, yes, it was cool as hell.
I’m pretty sure that back when Siegal and Shuster were refashioning the story of Jesus into a comic book it never occurred to them that there was an actual planet floating around out that that could really be the home for such a being.
Which leads to me to wonder if there is also a planet like Apokolips. That would kind of suck.