Space happenings are hard to fathom

Published 9:53 am Wednesday, September 13, 2017

By Chuck Witt

ScienceAlert newsletter from Aug. 18 stated: “roughly 55 million light years away, in the galaxy NGC 5643, an exploding star sent a wave of gas and radiation crashing into a neighboring sun.”

First, it should be noted that ScienceAlert is a free online daily newsletter which posts recent scientific developments and findings and tries to present them in such a way that the average lay person can comprehend them. ScienceAlert is available online at

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It always contains short articles about cosmology, paleontology, archaeology, meteorology and a lot of other -ologies too.

One of the interesting things about this particular posting is that, in talking about a celestial event that took place 55 million light years away also means that the event took place 55 million years ago!

Think about it.

Astronomers have just recently witnessed an event which took place about 10 million years after the dinosaurs disappeared from Earth!

And, as of right now, that event is no longer manifesting itself. It is gone, never to be seen again.

There is some fun — though not necessarily deliberate — in this article as well.

It continues: “The explosion itself, named SN2017cbv, seemed like a run-of-the-mill Type 1a supernova … caused by carbon-oxygen white dwarfs in a binary system greedily wolfing down material from their companions. A star will do so until passing its Chandrasekhar limit — the maximum mass a white dwarf can have — only to collapse and spew out a space tsunami of gas at about 10,000 kilometers per second.”

Boy! There’s a lot of information contained in that paragraph.

It’s interesting to note that astronomers assign labels to outer space explosions. Wonder how they set up the system for labeling? Where can one find data on the SN2016cbv explosion?

And how many types of supernovae are there? Are they classified sort of like tornadoes, based on their energy release?

Of course, if a Type 1a supernova were to occur with our own sun, the Earth would undoubtedly cease to exist at that moment, but the article makes it sound like the occurrence is nothing to be concerned about.

Just poof, and it’s over.

Fortunately, the article takes a brief moment to explain exactly what a Chandrasekhar limit is. There are probably a couple of people who might read this article and not be fully informed about what that limit is. Frankly, there are probably a lot of people who didn’t even know there was one or, if they ever heard of it, might have thought it had something to do with the South Beach Diet and the daily intake of calories.

Finally, the description of a gas-and-radiation tsunami traveling at 10,000 kilometers per second seems to trivialize exactly what is happening here.

When it speaks of a tsunami in this regard, it’s describing a cataclysmic cloud that would dwarf and destroy any planet in its path, and its speed is much greater than it sounds.

Imagine a single object passing Earth at 10,000 kilometers per second; that’s 6,214 miles per second.

Since the diameter of the Earth is 7,926 miles at the equator, the object, passing very close to the earth, would go completely past the planet in 1.27 seconds. Of course, the gas-and-radiation cloud described was probably several million kilometers long, so it would not be an instantaneous flyby.

The events which happen in space are truly wondrous and fascinating.

But they are devilishly difficult to grasp considering the scales at which they occur, both in time and distance.

Chuck Witt is a retired architect and a lifelong resident of Winchester. He can be reached at