Science Sunday: The Boom Star in My Back Yard

Prof Larry Molnar Credit: Calvin College

“What’s a Boom Star, Martin?”

It’s two stars that are going to collide in 2022, creating a Red Nova dubbed the Boom Star.

“Why do you say it’s in your back yard, Martin? Isn’t that kinda close?”

Well, of course, the stars won’t be in my back yard. But that’s where the research was done to discover this impending collision: at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Not precisely my back yard, but close enough to give me a sense of regional pride. This is world-class astronomy work, headed up right here in West Michigan. Dr. Molnar presented his paper at the American Astronomical Society last week. You can read a preprint version here.

So what’s going to happen? From the Telegraph article linked above:

Before their meeting the two stars were too dim to be seen by the naked eye, but in 2022, the newly formed Red Nova will burn so brightly in the constellation Cygnus that everyone will be able to to see it.

“For the first time in history, parents will be able to point to a dark spot in the sky and say, ‘Watch, kids, there’s a star hiding in there, but soon it’s going to light up,” said Dr Matt Walhout, dean for research and scholarship at Calvin College, Michigan, where the prediction was made.

For around six months the Boom Star will be one of the brightest in the sky before gradually dimming, returning to its normal brightness after around two to three years.

That. Is. So. Cool!

Now for Science Sunday, I like to explore the story implications of a scientific discovery. One obvious implication: suppose one of these stars had an inhabited planet? What would happen to the occupants? Nothing good, I fear. Would they live long enough to see the Red Nova engulf their planet? Or would the approach of the other star tear them out of orbit from their primary, either pulling them in to a fiery death or tossing them out into the cold darkness of space? Neither would be a good fate.

Though in the latter case… If they had time to move their civilization underground… Hmmm…

Of course, we don’t know if a binary system could have a planet in a stable orbit long enough to evolve intelligent life. The odds seem kinda long for that. But it’s not impossible. Might be a good story there.

I hope to interview Dr. Molnar for a future Science Sunday. Stay tuned!

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