Monday, December 31, 2012

"RESOLUTIONS" for New Year's 2013!

            “Fifteen minutes until the ball drops!”  Langley was rushing around excitedly, handing out noisemakers and party hats.

              “Whoopee,” Mary said, waving one finger in the air.  She never lifted her eyes from her computer screen.

            “That’s not exactly the holiday spirit, Mary,” her friend Cal chided her.

            “Maybe because I’m working on New Year’s Eve, trying to get these images interpreted from the satellite,” Mary responded tartly.

            “You chose that,” Cal pointed out.  “It could wait until January 3.”

            Mary was horrified.  “The images are being taken now!  I couldn’t bear to wait that long.”

            “Neither could anyone else, apparently,” Cal said as he looked around the analysis room of the JHU/Goddard Space Flight Center.  Fourteen scientists milled around, waiting for the images from the Super Massive Astronomical Observer (SMAO) in orbit around the Moon to be assembled by the powerful computers downstairs.  Langley, the “clown” of the group of astronomers and astrophysicists, had turned the TV in the room to the Times Square countdown and was dancing – poorly – with a giggling red-headed graduate student from MIT.

            “These are the best images ever taken of a Wolf-Rayet type pair, Cal,” Mary said impatiently.  “The resolution on the SMAO telescope is good enough for us to see the discs of the actual stars of WR-104 that make up the binary pair.”

            WR-104 lay 8,000 light-years away from the Earth and was Mary’s and Cal’s obsession, though for different reasons.  Cal’s dissertation had been on the stellar gases surrounding WR-104 – a gorgeous pinwheel of light thrown off by the two giant stars spinning around each other.  The elemental makeup of that pinwheel could be studied, and provided crucial clues to the make up of the Solar System early in its history.

            WR-104 was particularly interesting because the axis of the two stars pointed in the Earth’s direction; the “pinwheel” which revolved around them was perpendicular to the Earth and in full view of telescopes in the Solar System.

            That same position gave telescopes a perfect view of the stars orbital dance, which was Mary’s specialty.  She had written her dissertation about gravitational anomalies in the orbits of stars, and WR-104 was the perfect laboratory to observe any such problems.

            “I think Langley has a different kind of resolution in mind,” Cal observed dryly.

            Langley was up near the TV, hand in the air, solemnly resolving to lose twenty pounds in the New Year.  He pointed to another scientist, and he swore to stop smoking.

            “You have any resolutions, Mary?”

            She didn’t answer him, but continued to stare at her screen.


            She shook suddenly, then turned to him.  Her face was pale.  Cal, come look at this.”

            He leaned over her shoulder, putting a hand on her back.  He recoiled slightly from her trembling.  “Mary, what’s wrong?”

            “The binary pair.  Look at its orbit.”

            Carl looked at the data and the image and blinked.  The two stars of WR-104 orbited around each other every two hundred and twenty days, at a distance of two hundred million miles.  Except now the fuzzy plasma discs of the stars’ coronas actually overlapped each other.

            “What’s going on, Mary?”

            She shook her head.  “Some sort of gravitational instability has broken up their orbit.  They’re going to crash into each other.  If they explode as a hypernova, we may get a GRB.”

            A gamma ray burster, or GRB, was one of the most energetic objects in the universe.  A super-massive star collapsing into a hypernova would leave behind a black hole – and generate a massive pulse of gamma rays.  Telescopes had observed gamma ray bursts from the edge of the universe and from galaxies millions of light years away.

            GRB’s generated a focused pulse along the objects rotational axis – like twin search-lights pulsing straight out from the north and south poles of the star.  Radiation outside of the poles was limited – within the beam it was apocalyptic.

            Earth lay directly in line of the poles of WR-104.  A GRB within ten thousand light years would deliver ten times the lethal dose of radiation to every life form not shielded by a kilometer of rock or water.  Everything on Earth with a nervous system would die, painfully and fairly quickly.

            “How long?” Carl asked hoarsely.

            WR-104 was 8000 light years away.  The collision between the two giant stars, if it happened, had occurred before the Pyramids were erected.  Gamma rays traveled at the speed of light; if the collision happened eight thousand years less one hour ago, the rays would arrive at the Earth in one hour.

            “I think they’re about eighty seconds from collision in this image,” Mary said.  Her voice was quiet.

            “So.  We’ll know in half-a-minute.”

            “Yes.  Yes we will.”

            As they looked at each other, pale and frightened, Langley and the other scientists joined in a group hug in front of the TV focused on Times Square, in New York.

They counted out joyfully, “Ten!”




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