Published: March 2007

Cosmic Explosions

Plasma Jet

Bang, the Catacylsmic Death of Stars

Massive stars die in the biggest explosions since the big bang. Now scientists are deciphering the stories of these doomed suns.

By Ron Cowen
Image by Weiqun Zhang, Stanford University, and Stan Woosley, University of California at Santa Cruz. Supercomputing: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) and NASA Ames Research Center

Ever since he was a teenager, Stan Woosley has had a love for chemical elements and a fondness for blowing things up. Growing up in the late 1950s in Texas, "I did everything you could do with potassium nitrate, perchlorate, and permanganate, mixed with a lot of other things," he says. "If you mixed potassium nitrate with sulfur and charcoal, you got gunpowder. If you mixed it with sugar, you got a lot of smoke and a nice pink fire." He tested his explosive concoctions on a Fort Worth golf course: "I screwed the jar down tight and ran like hell."

Woosley, now an astronomer at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has graduated to bigger explosions—much bigger. Woosley studies some of the most powerful explosions since the birth of the universe: supernovas, the violent deaths of stars.

The universe twinkles with these cataclysms. They happen every second or so, usually in some unimaginably remote galaxy, blazing as bright as hundreds of billions of stars and creating a fireball that expands and cools for months.

We're lucky that they rarely strike close to home. The last supernova in our own galaxy exploded in 1604, rivaling Jupiter's brightness in the night sky and deeply impressing Johannes Kepler, the pioneering astronomer. A nearby supernova—within a few light-years—would bathe the Earth in lethal radiation.

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