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Friday, August 17, 2007

Abuzz over dying stars

There's a very interesting story in the news about the unexpected observation of a dying star in our galaxy that's trailing bits of itself as it speeds through the universe. Astronomers are marveling at the discovery of Mira's comet-like tailing luminescence. This "red giant" is expanding as it approaches the final stages of life, and the force of gravity isn't strong enough to contain its growing mass. The gases escaping from its bursting seams are lighting the path behind it.

Mira is Latin for "wonder," and the phenomenon of its waking death, captured in NASA photographs such as the one above, is certainly an awe inspiring sight. Especially wonderful is the prospect that the pieces of itself Mira leaves behind will eventually develop into new stars. It's a miraculous sowing of celestial seeds revealed by the space agency's orbiting telescope called the Galaxy Evolution Explorer.

Here are a few excerpts from the Reuters story on Mira:

Astronomers surprised by star with comet-like tail

... Rocketing through our Milky Way galaxy at 80 miles per second (130 km per second) -- literally faster than a speeding bullet -- the star is spewing material that scientists believe may be recycled into new stars, planets and maybe even life.

"We believe that the tail is made up of material that is being shed by the star which is heating up and then spiraling back into this turbulent wake," said astronomer Christopher Martin of California Institute of Technology, one of the researchers in the study published in the journal Nature. ...

"It's giving us this fantastic insight into the death processes of stars and their renewals -- their phoenix-like revivals as their ashes get cycled backed into the next generation of stars," added Michael Shara of the American Museum of Natural History and Columbia University in New York. ...
I'm one who likes to look to the stars, even though the particular patch of sky above my home is obscured by bright city lights. Mira offers an inspirational example for all of us earthbound bits of space dust as we contemplate our legacies. What better way to leave this life than by blazing a trail that lays the foundation for future generations.

It's a very loose association, but reading Mira's sad but hopeful tale brought to mind a favorite song by the band Hum. I got to see the boys from Champaign, Illinois perform in Chicago several times back in the '90s, and they put on quite the live show (you can check out a vid of the song on YouTube).

Stars
by Hum

She thinks she missed the train to Mars,
She's out back counting stars
She thinks she missed the train to Mars,
She's out back counting stars

She's not at work, she's not at school
She's not in bed, i think i finally broke her
I bring her home everything i want,
And nothing that she needs

I thought she'd be there holding daisies,
She always waits for me
She thinks she missed the train to Mars,
She's out back counting stars

I found her out back sitting naked
Looking up and looking dead
A crumpled yellow piece of paper,
Seven, nines and tens

I thought she'd be there holding daisies,
She always waits for me
She thinks she missed the train to Mars,
She's out back counting stars

I thought you'd be there holding daisies,
You always wait for me
She thinks she missed the train to Mars,
She's out back counting stars
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