Saturday, October 21, 2006

Lived Fast Died Young

Image Credit: Nicolle Rager Fuller/NSF physorg: newman - gamma_h_star

Stars shine by burning hydrogen. The process is called nuclear fusion. Hydrogen burning produces helium "ash." As the star runs out of hydrogen (and nears the end of its life), it begins burning helium. The ashes of helium burning, such as carbon and oxygen, also get burned. The end result of this fusion is iron. Iron cannot be used for nuclear fuel. Without fuel, the star no longer has the energy to support its weight. The core collapses. If the star is massive enough, the core will collapse into a black hole. The black hole quickly forms jets; and shock waves reverberating through the star ultimately blow apart the outer shells. Gamma-ray bursts are the beacons of star death and black hole birth.

It came from the edge of the visible universe, the most distant explosion ever detected. In this week's issue of Nature, scientists at Penn State University and their U.S. and European colleagues discuss how this explosion, detected on 4 September 2005, was the result of a massive star collapsing into a black hole.

The explosion, called a gamma-ray burst, comes from an era soon after stars and galaxies first formed, about 500 million to 1 billion years after the Big Bang. The universe is now 13.7 billion years old, so the September burst serves as a probe to study the conditions of the early universe.

"This was a massive star that lived fast and died young," said David Burrows, senior scientist and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State, a co-author on one of the three reports about this explosion published this week in Nature. "This star was probably quite different from the kind we see today, the type that only could have existed in the early universe.
Full article Physorg 8th March 2006

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