FOR THE WEEK OF OCT. 23, 2017
New evidence of huge stars colliding long ago excites astronomers
Summarize what you learn from another science article.
Now share a fact or quote from news far away -- though not millions of light years.
What do newspapers and school textbooks have in common? (List at least two things.)
News from the world of science last week sounds like something from a special effects film. Coverage includes phrases such as "cosmic gong show," "a mega-bang" and "rattled the galaxy." Here's how a New York Times article summarizes it in the first sentence: "Astronomers announced that they had seen and heard belated evidence that a pair of dead stars collided long, long ago, giving them their first glimpse of the violent process by which most of the gold and silver in the universe was created." Sounds major, right? Also a bit hard to grasp. (OK, more than a bit.) We'll try to explain what's up.
The distant collision -- known as a kilonova -- involved massive neutron stars weighing more than the sun. It took place at nearly the speed of light and rattled the galaxy in which it happened 130 million light-years ago. "It's the greatest fireworks show in the universe,” says David Reitze at the California Institute of Technology. "When these things collide, all hell breaks loose." Because of the unimaginably vast distance, what happened wasn't detected by sensors in space and on Earth until two months ago via gravity waves and gamma rays. The collision sent that evidence through the galaxy until it reached instruments at more than 70 observatories, two satellites and the Hubble Space Telescope. "The adrenaline hit," one astronomer says of reactions to surprise signals in mid-August.
Such spectacular explosions are believed to have produced many of the heavier elements we know, including precious metals like gold, silver and uranium. Studying the fireball from this explosion, astronomers conclude that it created a cloud of gold dust many times larger than our planet, confirming kilonovas as agents of ancient cosmic alchemy.
Astronomer says: "For the first time ever, we have proof. . . . This 50-year-old mystery, the holy grail, is solved." -- Vicky Kalogera, Northwestern University
Journalist writes: "These neutron stars are masses as great as the sun, packed into a region the size of Manhattan brimming with magnetic and gravitational fields." – Dennis Overbye, The New York Times
What scientists learn: Measurements of the light and other energy from the crash help explain how planet-killing gamma ray bursts are born, how fast the universe expands and where heavy elements like platinum and gold come from.
Front Page Talking Points Archive
Lessons & Classroom Activities
Resources by grade level