Massive white dwarf in our galaxy may go supernova

Jan 07, 2010 by Lin Edwards report
Hubble telescope picture of T Pyxidis, from a compilation of data taken on Feb. 26, 1994, and June 16, Oct. 7, and Nov. 10, 1995, by the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. Credit: NASA

(PhysOrg.com) -- A massive white dwarf star in our galaxy may become a supernova several million years from now, and could damage the Earth and possibly destroy life on Earth.

Scientists at the American Astronomical Society's 215th meeting, in Washington DC, said earlier this week that new observations of T Pyxidis in the constellation Pyxis (the compass) using the International Ultraviolet Explorer satellite, indicate the white dwarf is part of a close with a sun, and the pair are 3,260 light-years from Earth and much closer than the previous estimate of 6,000 light-years.

The white dwarf in the T Pyxidis system is a recurrent nova, which means it undergoes nova (thermonuclear) eruptions around every 20 years. The most recent known events were in 1967, 1944, 1920, 1902, and 1890. These explosions are nova rather than supernova events, and do not destroy the star, and have no effect on Earth. The astronomers do not know why the there has been a longer than usual interval since the last nova eruption.

Astronomers believe the nova explosions are the result of an increase of mass as the dwarf siphons off hydrogen-rich gases from its stellar companion. When the mass reaches a certain limit a nova is triggered. It is unknown whether there is a net gain or loss of mass during the siphoning/explosion cycle, but if the mass does build up the so-called Chandrasekhar Limit could be reached, and the dwarf would then become a Type 1a supernova. In this event the dwarf would collapse and detonate a massive explosion resulting in its total destruction. This type of supernova releases 10 million times the energy of a nova.

Observations of the white dwarf during the nova eruptions suggest its mass is increasing, and pictures from the Hubble telescope of shells of material expelled during the previous explosions support the view. Models estimate the white dwarf's mass could reach the Chandrasekhar Limit in around 10 million years or less.

According to the scientists the supernova would result in gamma radiation with an energy equivalent to 1,000 solar flares simultaneously - enough to threaten Earth by production of nitrous oxides that would damage and perhaps destroy the ozone layer. The supernova would be as bright as all the other stars in the Milky Way put together. One of the astronomers, Dr Edward Sion, from Villanova University in Pennsylvania, said the supernova could occur "soon" on the timescales familiar to astronomers and geologists, but this is a long time in the future in human terms.

Astronomers think supernova explosions closer than 100 from Earth would be catastrophic, but the effects of events further away are unclear and would depend on how powerful the supernova is. The research team postulate it could be close enough and powerful enough to damage Earth, possibly severely, although other researchers, such as Professor Fillipenko of the Berkeley Astronomy Department, disagree with the calculations and believe the , if it occurred, would be unlikely to damage the planet.

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User comments : 25

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Birger
5 / 5 (1) Jan 07, 2010
A future supercivilization would probably be able to disrupt the flow of plasma from the star to the white dwarf in case a resulting future supernova would be dangerously close...
MVV
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 07, 2010
Easier and cheaper to build a nanoshield and focus it on the incoming radiation wave. Reusable for other threats of the same kind.
Nik_2213
5 / 5 (2) Jan 07, 2010
Given there's a binary companion, the primary's rotation axis alignment should be constrained ~~ +/- 10 degrees. Hopefully, it is not aimed at us...
AceLepage
4.8 / 5 (4) Jan 07, 2010
In 10 million years, will the star still be in the same relative place to Earth?
El_Nose
5 / 5 (2) Jan 07, 2010
LOL -- that star could have gone supernova a two thosand years ago and we wouldn't know till the year 3100 rolled around. The time scales of galatic events are not for mere humans to worry on, especially if we are still getting all our information via electromagnetic radiation. -- Not that I am saying any other source exists or is detectable, but its just too slow for distances over 10 ly.
OdinsAcolyte
1 / 5 (8) Jan 07, 2010
Well, it may have happened already. I wonder if the sky will become brighter and we shall see the Two Suns of Mayan/Aztec mythology on that fateful December day in 2012? Make no mistake, this is a much more real threat than the AGW lie. The difference being there is no political gain to be made from this. Come Nov, 2012 I think I may party hard just to be sure I don't waste a chance. Seeing as the nova stage is already way past due; prepare for the finale!
danman5000
4.2 / 5 (6) Jan 07, 2010
A future supercivilization would probably be able to disrupt the flow of plasma from the star to the white dwarf in case a resulting future supernova would be dangerously close...

More likely they would send Ambassador Spock with a canister of red matter to create a black hole to take care of it. Too bad about Romulus though.
Mesafina
not rated yet Jan 07, 2010
I wonder if the sky will become brighter and we shall see the Two Suns of Mayan/Aztec mythology on that fateful December day in 2012? Make no mistake, this is a much more real threat than the AGW lie. The difference being there is no political gain to be made from this.


...what?

This is the biggest crock of $hit I have ever heard. You don't actually believe it's very likely that anything at all unusual will happen in 2012 do you?

Lol, good job!
Hernan
5 / 5 (3) Jan 07, 2010
Someone didn't read the whole article: ..10 Million years.. don't expect anything in 2012. On the other hand, Betelgeuse is expected to become a Supernova within the next 1000 years. I has already started collapsing. It's axis is NOT pointing to Earth, so we shouldn't be fried (I HOPE THEY"RE RIGHT ABOUT THAT!!)
Hernan
not rated yet Jan 07, 2010
danman5000
not rated yet Jan 07, 2010
@Hernan: Thanks for those links. This is a pretty interesting subject - I hope to see a supernova at some point in my life. Also, that first article had a highly entertaining comment section that kept me occupied for quite a while. Thanks!
OdinsAcolyte
2 / 5 (4) Jan 07, 2010
No. I don't expect anything. That is the nature of surprise isn't it? Good to get an LOL. I was serious about AGW crock. The supernova is a bigger threat. By the way, nobody can predict a supernova. Not even the most respected of astrophysicists alive. 10 million years give or take tomorrow, eh?
GaryB
5 / 5 (2) Jan 07, 2010
There will be NO supernova, the article is wrong. In 10M years, our robo-nano descendants will have already been there and will have harvested the energy and mass long before. Sheesh, just what are they teaching in school these days??
Truth
5 / 5 (2) Jan 07, 2010
True, GaryB, in 10M years, we will be so advanced that a simple supernova will be nothing more to us than a nice barbecue flame for our delicious reproducer-machine hot dogs!
Phelankell
4 / 5 (4) Jan 07, 2010
True, GaryB, in 10M years, we will be so advanced that a simple supernova will be nothing more to us than a nice barbecue flame for our delicious reproducer-machine hot dogs!

Or we'll be dead.
brant
1.3 / 5 (3) Jan 08, 2010
Oh were all going to die. Why do they have to print stories like this that really dont matter one bit???
Parsec
5 / 5 (6) Jan 08, 2010
The galaxy experiences a supernova every 100 years or so (in round numbers). We are overdue. However the galaxy is large, so the chances are very small of one being overly close. There is no evidence this has happened in the last 600 million years, despite a lot of really deep mass extinction events.

On the other hand there is REALLY strong evidence of climate induced extinction events occurring much more frequently. I wouldn't count on climate stability in the long run. Its not a good bet.
tolis12345
2.3 / 5 (3) Jan 08, 2010
Yea sure... As long as the ozone layer exists in 10.00 years from now...
OdinsAcolyte
5 / 5 (2) Jan 08, 2010
Y'all say climate. I say weather.
Stability is for static systems. The atmosphere ain't one. The earth evolves and so do we. 100% of all species that ever lived shall die. We shall die. I promise. Have a drink and enjoy the show.
mfritz0
1 / 5 (1) Jan 09, 2010
Perhaps by the time it happens man will have evolved to a higher tolerance of radiation, because if we don't, we will not be able to travel in space. Radiation is the big killer, we need to develope an imunity to it.
Nartoon
1 / 5 (1) Jan 09, 2010
No problemo, all we have to do is make 50 billion tin hats and distribute them to everyone under 25.
superhuman
5 / 5 (1) Jan 09, 2010
Models estimate the white dwarf's mass could reach the Chandrasekhar Limit in around 10 million years or less.

The theory of relativity is just a century old, it's near impossible to predict what technology will be available a century from now. What will the Earth and humanity look like one hundred thousand centuries from now?

Too bad we will never know the answer.
rwinners
not rated yet Jan 10, 2010
Does anyone want to bet that the human species will be in 10M years?
How about just 1M?
frajo
1 / 5 (1) Jan 10, 2010
What will the Earth and humanity look like one hundred thousand centuries from now?

Too bad we will never know the answer.
Depends how we define "we".
jsa09
not rated yet Jan 10, 2010
As H.G.Wells that great scientist who invented a time machine has already discovered. We will all be troglodytes with glowing eyes that prefer to live in caves.