No, a nearby supernova won't wipe us out

By Phil Plait | January 7, 2010 1:30 pm

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I attended the first few days of the American Astronomical Society meeting this week. I went as a member of the press, as I have for the past few years. The press room is a fun place; lots of old friends, banter across the table, and, of course, the press releases.

I had a stack in my mailbox, so I poked through them. One in particular caught my eye. And how could it not? In oversized, bold print the headline ran: "THE LONG OVERDUE RECURRENT NOVA T PYXIDIS: SOON TO BE A TYPE Ia SUPERNOVA?"

typeia_snHmmm. Recurrent novae are binary systems, where a dense white dwarf is stealing matter from its companion. The matter piles up, and eventually detonates, causing a huge flash of light (that’s the nova part). After time, the system settles down, the matter starts piling up, and the cycle starts again (that’s the recurrent part). Lots of recurrent novae are known, and are fairly well understood.

T Pyxidis is a fairly regular nova, blowing its lid every 20 years or so. It’s currently overdue, since the last event was in 1967. Using ultraviolet observations and new models of the system, astronomer Edward Sion and his team concluded it may actually explode soon as a supernova, an event far more energetic than a mere nova. Worse, their models indicate the system is "much closer" than previously thought: about 3300 light years away. In the last paragraph of their press release, it says:

An interesting, if a bit scary, speculative sidelight is that if a Type Ia supernova explosion occurs within [that distance] of Earth, then the gamma radiation emitted by the supernova would fry the Earth, dumping as much gamma radiation (~100,000 erg/square centimeter) into our planet [sic], which is equivalent to the gamma ray input of 1000 solar flares simultaneously.

AIIIIEEEEE!!! We’re all gonna die!

hst_tpyxidisHubble’s view of T Pyxidis from 1997, showing a shell of expanding matter from an earlier eruption.

Ahem. Except, really, no. I rolled my eyes when I read that bit. A Type Ia does put out more high-energy radiation than a Type II supernova, which is caused when a massive star’s core collapses and the outer layers are ejected. That’s what most people think of when they hear about a supernova. Those have to be really close to hurt us, certainly closer than 25 light years. But even with their added power, a Type Ia just doesn’t have the oomph needed to destroy our ozone layer (as the press release indicates) from 3300 light years away. It would have to be far closer than that.

Dana Berry artwork of a GRBI missed that press conference, but oh, how I wish I had been there! My friend Ian O’Neill was able to track down some details, and found out that astronomers (including another friend, Alex Filippenko, who is an expert’s expert on supernovae) at the meeting took Sion to task for this claim. It looks like Sion used the wrong numbers for the gamma ray emission for a Type Ia event, instead using the emission from a gamma-ray burst… a far, far, far more energetic event, and dangerous from several thousand light years away.

I don’t generally have too big an issue with a scientist getting a number wrong, but it depends on the circumstance. Issuing a press release saying, essentially, we’re all gonna die means they should do some due diligence. And in this specific case — they used the phrase "fry the Earth" for Pete’s sake! — means I am less willing to cut them slack. People get scared from stuff like this, and it’s simply wrong to feed that fire without making really sure you have your numbers straight first.

I’ll note that scientists tend not to write press releases, and it can be hard to rein in the PR author if they are not that familiar with the science (which I’ve seen many times). But even if the numbers in the PR were correct, the phrasing of that last paragraph is unacceptable. Whoever wrote the release should have known the media would zero in on that phrase.

Ian O’Neil, in his post at Discovery News, points out The Daily Telegraph did just that, printing an article with the headline, "Earth ‘to be wiped out’ by supernova explosion". The UK paper The Sun — which is so awful fish complain when you wrap them in it — had a similar article with the tagline, "A star primed to explode in a blast that could wipe out the Earth was revealed by astronomers yesterday."

Sheesh.

It’s too bad. There was no need to disaster-porn this release up the way it was done. Recurrent novae and Type Ia supernovae are fascinating, well worth our attention for any number of reasons including of course their potential danger. But it’s a not-too-fine line between piquing interest and tarting up the science.

Artwork credits: Casey Reed, Dana Berry.

Comments (109)

  1. Peachy

    How long do you think it will be before the “2012″ people jump on this?

  2. Greg in Austin

    If its anything like my old Chevy Nova, it’ll light up the night sky!

    Let’s just hope nobody puts anything metal in the microwave right when it goes off.

    8)

  3. David K.

    But I went through the calculations… The strong magnetic force juju of this star will cause a highly focused beam of Gamma Rays. Furthermore, I calculated the exact spot that this will strike earth: 1834 West Abaline St, Johnsonville, Missisippi, on some guy named Bubba. In his left arm. I’m sure this is in some way related to the LHC. :)

  4. Sean

    Wait, are you saying I’m NOT gonna die? Maybe I should buy some real estate…

  5. Phil, I’m still here at the meeting and some of us were just talking about this. To his credit, Sion is reexamining some aspects of this. I was at the press conference and Sion’s claims matched the PR piece — so you might want to go a little easy on the writer of this — if the scientist made the claim, how is the writer going to be the one to tell the scientist “I don’t believe you”? I’ve been in on the creation of PR pieces and it’s not always an easy task to dissuade the scientist from making certain statements. None of us really know what the process was for vetting this particular story.

  6. Adam

    If nothing else, it will certainly be fun to watch when it eventually does whatever it decides to do :)

    Bad wording on the PR though, whoever was responsible for it.

  7. @peachy Not long…. I’m linking to this article already.

  8. Doesn’t “frying” require the use of oil? If there is enough oil to “fry the Earth”, why is gasoline so expensive?

  9. So, when it blows, will it be visible to the naked eye?

  10. Magson

    I recently read a book set in the far future where a settled planet out at the galactic rim had 1 star in its sky 33 light years away. FTL travel was done via “jumping” and it was found (quite accidentally by jumping behind the blast wave) that that star’d gone nova 30 years prior and as bad luck would have it, this planet (population 2 billion — not evacuatable) was in the path of the GRB which was gonna essentially fry the biosphere of the world.

    Fascinating book — done more as a mystery than as sci-fi, but the research seemed solid to me, and made me very glad it’s not happening in our neck of the woods in the present.

  11. Ward

    Not being Phil or having his background my answer is probably horribly wrong but I would hazard to say that you will not see this explosion with the naked eye. The other problem is which exlopsion are you looking at. The next to occur is most likely going to be a nova (the 20 year cycle). The supernova isn’t expected to occur for a couple million years or so. Either one is still to far to see.

  12. MadScientist

    It would be awesome to see a supernova from that distance – I hope we see it soon. :) I mean I hope it went supernova over 3300 years ago …

  13. davem

    What? you mean that it won’t even melt the snow?

  14. Joe Meils

    I am forwarding the original quote to the Glenn Beck website. With luck, he’ll make an ass of himself (again… or maybe yet, still!) with it.

  15. Charles Boyer

    @peachy “How long do you think it will be before the “2012″ people jump on this?”

    I have already heard from someone in the office (incidentally an amateur astrologer, go figure) about her concerns that in 2012, the supernova will kill us all.

    She’s entertaining, because last week it was something about the South-Atlantic Anomaly indicating an imminent change in the Earth’s polarity, during which time we will have no protection from the solar and cosmic rays. This, of course, happens in 2012, according to her Mayan calendar anyway.

    She’s right – if not overstated – about losing the magnetic shield for some time when the polarity does change – and it is expected in the next 1500 years. No expert I have read has portended the end of human life, which I suppose is disappointing to her.

  16. “The UK paper The Sun — which is so awful fish complain when you wrap them in it” – I see you’ve read a copy then. ;)

  17. DrFlimmer

    The bad thing is, even Universe Today just “reprinted” this stuff, almost, uncommented. The comments set it straight, finally.

  18. Actually, running the numbers, if this star explodes it should have an apparent magintude of around -9.3, which would be spectacular (for comparison, the Crab Nebula is about twice as far, and its explosion in 1054 was recorded by people all over the world). Not harmful, though, so here’s hoping!

  19. Brian

    All foolish alarmism aside, isn’t it awesome that we’re (seemingly) able to distinguish imminent novae from imminent supernovae? Are we clever apes or what?

  20. Michelle R

    And… Ten million years from now. Geeze, for a second I thought I’d see a supernova.

  21. Quantos

    This response is pretty typical of Phil. It always seems his kneejerk response is to first blame the media or the author of a press release, rather than entertain the idea that it may actually be a scientist acting irresponsibly.

  22. Elias Tandel

    @19 Brian

    I’d say “or what”. We still can’t keep the “clever apes” from killing, torturing, humiliating etc.ing other “clever apes”.

  23. Cannot locate the exact show, but on one of the “geek channels” (Discovery/Nat Geo/Science/etc.), I recently watched a show that mentioned this. The mention of the binary system is why I believe it was the same claim, with the ‘documentary’ claiming the Earth (Solar System) is in the direct line for a GRB (as I recall….) from the final explosion. (I know… I did get DFTS from local Library, still unemployed so cannot afford purchase).

    While watching it, I was questioning some of the claims, which always peeves me on the ‘science’ channels, including a series “Sci Fi Science” with Michio Kaku. He shows the science behind various SF standards (teleportation, FTL travel, time travel, etc.), but tends to be a bit ‘sloppy’ in his designs… for instance, near-lightspeed travel requires a ‘shield/force field’ to avoid micrometeors from damaging his spaceship, so he says (basically) ‘so we’ll use a force field’… which is questionable, and he should use one episode to explain how his ‘force field’ will work.
    [There's also another one-shot SciFi Science that looks at some 'standard' technology from SF, and also looks at real science, and is IMHO much better]

    J/P=?

  24. AliCali

    So the headline stated “THE LONG OVERDUE RECURRENT NOVA T PYXIDIS: SOON TO BE A TYPE Ia SUPENOVA?”

    Did they misspell supernova in the original headline, or is that copy and paste error?

  25. Tristan

    Actualy, there was an Anime released several years ago called “Stellvia” that dealt with mankind getting hit by a supernova.

    Basically, some 200+ years before the series started, earth was suddenly hit by the high energy particles form a nearby supernova, which royalty screwed things up, and even turned the nigh sky green with leftovers.

    At the series start, the solar system, now colonized with several space stations called Foundations, and other planetary/lunar colonies, is getting ready to take on “the great mission” which will attempt to deflect the 2nd wave from the super nova, containing the dust, rock, etc kicked our way by the explosion.

    Show plays fast and lose at times with science, but more or less adhears to reality (aka, no FTL for example.)

    But hey, got to love a show where the lead heroine is a pilot / computer programmer.

  26. Alec

    I like Alex Filippenko because he always looks like he’s smiling :)

  27. Almo

    I have a couple of questions:
    How do we know – and how certain are we – that it won’t produce a GRB?
    Does the problem with the fear mongering media perhaps stem from the fact that many scientists claim ideas/suggestions as facts?

  28. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    As for #23, isn’t Kaku considered a joke in other scientists eyes? As in, sure he gets money, but it isn’t much actual science involved.

    equivalent to the gamma ray input of 1000 solar flares simultaneously

    Gamma rays… So, when it blows, will it be visible to a clothed eye? [With excuses to Carey.]

    We still can’t keep the “clever apes” from killing, torturing, humiliating etc.ing other “clever apes”.

    That is neither relevant for cleverness nor true. AFAIU chimpanzees are considered much more aggressive, individually and socially, than us. Amongst other things they practice infanticide on a more or less regular basis, as other herd animals with alpha male structure tend to do.

    If humans are exceptional in some manner, it is our peacefulness. In fact, as bipedalism and our hand construction is no longer a clear sign of Homo, and earlier technology was seen to have the same problem, some paleontologists seem to propose that dentition of all things could be the evolutionary trait that marks us. (See A. ramidus coverage in Science.)

    And that dentition with its exceptionally small canines is likely due to decreased sexual competition and increased sexual cooperation, in tandem with our now crypto-estrous behavior. If the male don’t know when the female is receptive, he has to work it, baby!

  29. SimonD

    I love the phrase “disaster porn” – brilliant !

  30. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    the fact that many scientists claim ideas/suggestions as facts

    Oh, is that a fact? Where is your statistics? (Or is it just an idea/suggestion claimed as fact?)

    If scientists complain about how science is portrayed in media, what is likelier? That the media mess up by equivocating between observations and hypotheses, and between hypotheses and tested hypotheses, which allows them to make exceptional claims that sell papers without exceptional evidence or rather evidence at all? Or that it is the scientists that work with these things and get paid to get them right that do so?

  31. Bryan

    @Almo – Gamma Ray Bursts originate from Type II supernovae- the collapsing star type.

    @Arik Rice – -9.3? Wow, if I did my math right that’s almost 76 times brighter than crescent Venus! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apparent_magnitude Should be a good show!

  32. Keith

    “The Sun — which is so awful fish complain when you wrap them in it”

    And parakeets will hold in their poop if you line their cages with it.

    @Peachy – Probably faster than you can say ‘gamma ray burst’

  33. I saw this first on Universe Today on Monday. Having read Death from the Skies I knew immediately that 3,300 ly was nowhere close to do us any harm … but, it would be a spectacular show, one in a lifetime for sure!

  34. Messier Tidy Upper

    So this is what all the fuss was about when I was on the “WISE first light” thread (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/01/06/first-light-for-wise/ ) the other night.

    If you’re curious here ‘s my response to a question about it back then :

    **
    19. Messier Tidy Upper Says:

    @ 16. Arch Duke Ferdinand Says:

    Anybody heard of star ‘T Pyxidis’ ? Evidently it is going supernova in the near future and its only 3260 light years away.

    I have indeed. It is a recurrent nova in Pyxis ( http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/pyx-p.html ) – one of two constellations representing the compass along with Circinus, ( http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/tra-t.html ) both in the southern skies. Collins Guide to Stars & Planets (Ridpath & Tirion, 2007) notes :


    “T Pyx, 9hr 05m -32 degrees.4 is a recurrent nova that has undergone five recorded eruptions, in 1890, 1902, 1920, 1944 and 1966. Normally it is of mag. 14, but brightens to 6th or 7th magnitude. Further outbursts may be expected.”

    Or see : http://www.aavso.org/vstar/vsots/0402.shtml

    It can perhaps be roughly located being on a diagonal line with Canopus (Alpha Carinae) & Alphard (Alpha Hydrae) and is, I’d presume, a white dwarf accumulating mass from a companion star.

    Hmm .. couple of astronomical anniversaries then for its 1920 (90 years ago) & 1890 (120 yrs) outbursts.

    Not exactly sure why its relevant here – have you noted T Pyxidis erupting or heard WISE will be looking at it? Interesting though.

    ****

    I’d like to see it go supernova … but I’m not holding my breath. A spectacular supernova in our night skies is something I’ve wanted to see my whole life. (Missed out on SN 1987a, alas.) I always figured Eta Carinae, Antares or Betelguex were my best hopes but guess I can now add T Pyxidis to the list! :-)

    No, I don’t think it will bring death from the skies but just provide some awe-inspiring natural fireworks & provide us with a lot of new knowledge. :-)

  35. patrick neville

    Alex Filippenko, oh man i LOVE him, in high school my class would watch laser discs with him lecturing on it, was so great

  36. coolstar

    Ed Sion is a very good astronomer and one of the world’s experts on white dwarfs, which is why it’s so odd he’s trivially wrong on this (also extremely ironic that the would-be-king of disaster porn would write a post on this). Adrian Melott of the University of Kansas has done a lot of very good work on the effects of nearby SN (it’s his value of 25 light years that Phil uses without attribution above). Melott’s work is well known and he’s often presented on it at AAS meetings, which makes it doubly odd that Sion didn’t know of it.

  37. Dang Mayans were right after all…..

  38. #34 Messier Tidy Upper:

    “one of two constellations representing the compass along with Circinus”

    Actually, these two constellations represent the two different meanings of the word “compass”.
    Pyxis represents a mariner’s compass, the kind used for navigation; it’s one of the dismembered parts of the old constellation Argo Navis, the ship.
    Circinus represents the other kind of compass, i.e. the drawing instrument. In fact, I think it’s more correctly represented as a pair of dividers.

  39. ntsc

    “The UK paper The Sun — which is so awful fish complain when you wrap them in it”

    Original remark was ‘No self respecting fish would want to be wrapped in a paper produced by Rupurt Murdock”, was a comment by Mike Royko upon being told the newspaper he wrote for had been purchased by Murdock, upon which Royko quit.

  40. Maria

    Thanks for this explanation. I thought it was a piece of crap article but wanted to see how bad it really was. BTW LOVE the term disaster porn.

  41. Peter

    @Quantos

    Let investigate the chain, shall we?

    1. Scientist tend to know the facts of the matter at hand.
    2. Press releases are written by text writers.
    3. Text writers do tent to not command of the facts and matter at hand.
    4. Papers need to sell, they need therefore to appeal to the masses, therefore the media tends to sensationalise.

    Phill’s assumption’s that media might be in error was therefore perfectly reasonable, though wrong in this case.

    And you are babbling about knee-jerk reaction? Come on, save us your stupidity will you? There is sufficient dumbness without you on the Internet.. it can do just fine without your dumb, because that what it is, opinion.

    Thanks.

  42. Robert

    Even Popular Science posted this news on their blog: http://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2010-01/star-verge-supernova-could-threaten-life-earth

    I hope we are going to eventually see some corrections posted…

  43. Gary

    Another failure of peer-review? How could an astronomer get the numbers wrong and somebody not catch it, especially when the conclusion is so dramatic?

  44. Gee what a shock, coolstar (#36) once again attacks and insults me and is quite wrong when doing it.

    I know Adrian Melott, and the 25 light year number comes from several researchers, too many to name, who studied the various effects of SNe and GRBs on the Earth.

    “Would-be king of disaster porn”? Nice try, coolstar, but you may note a very important distinction: I am very careful to point out to people that the odds of the Earth getting destroyed are very low. The difference here is I’m not only not trying to scare people, I’m trying to be realistic and reassure them that (besides asteroid impacts and damage from solar events) the odds of astronomical events hurting is is extremely low.

    But it doesn’t matter anyway. Your trollish behavior has earned you a visit to my spam filter. I warned you, twice, to follow my posting guidelines. Since you chose to ignore that, you’re gone.

  45. The voice of reason

    Disaster Porn, anyone have a copy of Supernova does Dallas?

  46. @Bryan – Yep, here’s the math very quickly:

    A type Ia has an absolute magnitude of -19.3, which is how bright it would appear 32.6 ly away. This star is 3300 ly away, or roughly 100 times farther. By the inverse square law, it would thus appear 100^2 or 10,000 times dimmer. Each step of 5 magintudes defined as a factor of 100 in brightness, so 10,000 times dimmer would be 10 magintudes dimmer, or -9.3.

    And, yes, you did do your math correctly as well. Pity it’s not estimated to explode for another 10 million years.

    BTW, the page you linked to gives the estimated brightness of SN 1054 which I mentioned before as -6. SN 1054 was roughly twice as far as this star, and was Type II , which is dimmer than a Type Ia, yet was STILL brighter than Venus.

  47. Gary Ansorge

    Coolest thing about the arriving wave front is, from the total energy released as electromagnetic energy we can calculate the approximate arrival time of particle energy(protons, electrons, heavy ions,) which could have some interesting effects, such as low latitude aurora. I haven’t seen an aurora since 1957( I was in Nevada at the time and it was really cool, seeing waving curtains of light in the night sky).

    Come on Super nova. Give us one more blast.

    GAry 7

  48. Spockish

    I am no Astronomer, nor do I think I’ll become one, But there are a few oddity’s that Puzzle or wonder me.

    Is gravity limited to the speed of light in velocity? I think not or the concept of Warp drive may never happen. And if Gravity can go faster than light, the gravity wave detector program that NASA started planning back in 2007 may be able to inform us here on this blue marble in the Sol Solar System. Then there is Neutrino detectors that may pre-inform us. This pre-knowledge may be weeks years, months, even only weeks and days, or as small as hours to minutes or seconds to let us now death is arriving. The light an microwave radiation we today can shield ourselfs from, it’s the Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta radiation that will fry us.

    What knowledge do we have on shielding from this form of harm. Now if we can get Climate Change people to stop aiming at powers we have yet to create on Earth, that’s weather control we may be able to create shields for at least spaceships if not this blue marble we live on.

    Shields for Earth would protect all life on this planet, and shields for spaceships would let us move to a new home. I have no idea as for the power supply needed for even a ship, let alone a planet. Some thing smaller than a mile will take far less than something 24,000+ miles big.

  49. Messier Tidy Upper

    According to one astronomy website the most dangerous star is the fairly similar HR 8210 :

    http://jumk.de/astronomie/special-stars/hr-8210.shtml

    But I think T Pyxidis may now be giving it a run for its money. ;-)

    @ 38. Neil Haggath Says:

    #34 Messier Tidy Upper: “one of two constellations representing the compass along with Circinus.” Actually, these two constellations represent the two different meanings of the word “compass”. Pyxis represents a mariner’s compass, the kind used for navigation; it’s one of the dismembered parts of the old constellation Argo Navis, the ship. Circinus represents the other kind of compass, i.e. the drawing instrument. In fact, I think it’s more correctly represented as a pair of dividers.

    Thanks – I didn’t know that. ;-)

  50. There was no need to disaster-porn this release up the way it was done.

    Well, except… they got a write-up in the Telegraph and the Sun, and now they’re getting noise in the blogosphere, too!. Sounds like a promotion and a raise to me.

    Frankly, the astonishing thing is that we ever get any honest science reporting at all, given that all the incentives run the other way.

  51. Asimov Fan

    Hmm .. maybe things got “mixed up” in the same way they did when Felicia Day was giving her talk on colliding galaxies as revealed by the Spitzer space telescope?

    See what I mean by clicking on the videoclip here:

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/10/26/felicia-day-collides-galaxies/

    (Surprised someone hasn’t already beaten me to it with this actually. ;-) )

  52. DigitalAxis

    @Phil:
    Nevertheless, I had a similar reaction to coolstar on this one. Ed Sion is an expert on cataclysmic variables and a respected scientist, so I was surprised he’d get this wrong… and yet there it is. My guess is that he went from the discovery of its orientation to the fact that GRBs (which are not in the same field of research, really) do nasty things when pointed straight at us, and somehow forgot it was a type Ia supernova…

    I’ve seen enough press releases mangled in transmission to expect the reporters went off on their own tangent with this, so that’s why I think we’re all so surprised that it really was Dr. Sion who had the wrong numbers. and ran with it. If I’d been there, I think I would have been pretty surprised though. I saw the press release and stopped at the “might become a type 1a supernova soon”, not reading down to the fantastical claims.

    @49 Spockish:
    The Standard Model of Particle Physics says gravity also moves at the speed of light; those waves are what missions like LISA and LIGO are trying to detect. The reason neutrinos are able to warn us in advance is that they’re produced prior to the supernova shockwave, at least in SN II events.

    As for radiation, Alpha radiation (helium nuclei) is stopped by skin (so just don’t eat an alpha-particle source, or you’ll end up like the Russian journalist with the poisoned tea) and beta radiation (electrons) can be stopped by a brick wall, so I’m pretty sure the atmosphere would protect us from the worst effects of alpha and beta particles (I haven’t done any calculations, but I’m assuming the amount of material in 60 miles of atmosphere would stop nearly all beta particles, although it might cause further decay products).

    On the other hand, gamma rays (photons) are a serious problem, as are cosmic rays (HIGHLY accelerated particles, moreso than alpha or beta radiation); they can pass through the entire planet Earth and there’s really not much we can do.

    I don’t know what delta rays are so I can’t say anything about them. Weren’t they what disfigured Captain Pike in Star Trek: The Menagerie?

  53. Flying sardines

    @ 53. DigitalAxis Says:

    I don’t know what delta rays are so I can’t say anything about them. Weren’t they what disfigured Captain Pike in Star Trek: The Menagerie?

    Yes indeed. Good memory there! ;-)

    Wikipedia says via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Pike_(Star_Trek) :

    ***

    At some point prior to “The Menagerie”, Pike is promoted to fleet captain. He is severely injured while rescuing several cadets from a baffle plate rupture onboard a J-class training vessel, the delta ray radiation leaving him paralyzed, mute, badly scarred, and dependent on a brainwave-operated wheelchair. His only means of communicating is through a light on the chair: one flash meaning “yes” and two flashes indicating “no”.

    ****

    Crikey, future tech’s pretty lame in that original version of Star Trek isn’t it? We can already do much better now than they will in those future years to come – just look at Stephen Hawking! Has anyone tried retconning that ‘un? ;-)

  54. Michael Kingsley

    There was an article published in the January 2005 issue of the Journal of Geoscience Education that readers of this blog might be interested in. Steven I. Dutch from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay wrote the article, entitled “Life (Briefly) Near a Supernova.” It is a great example of how science fiction can be applied to a science classroom setting. Unfortunately, the science portrayed in the stories by such greats as Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven was not always 100% correct, but that doesn’t mean that a great narrative can’t be used to teach correct science, especially with regard to the concept of scale. I mentioned this article in a panel on using SF in the classroom at CONvergence (a great convention that takes place in Bloomington, Minnesota during July) last year.

    Read the article at http://nagt.org/files/nagt/jge/abstracts/Dutch_v53n1.pdf .

  55. mathmanprime

    did somebody hurt Phil’s feelings? I usually enjoyed coolstar’s psts (he appears, like you, to be much more liberal politically than I am). yes, sometimes he’s snarky, but on a one to 10 scale, you’re still ahead on the snark meter.
    In the post you referred to he 1) gave references your readers would be interested in and tweaked you for not doing the same. So what’s the big deal? Your followup referenced the same guy, and others. 2) he tweeked you about wanting to be the king of disaster porn. again, what’s the big deal? you’re constantly flogging your book on disasters, so, what do you expect? his definition of disaster porn may be more inclusive than yours, but again, so what? if you start banning everyone who finds you sometimes a bit annoying (and vice versa), you’ll be left with only people who kiss up. i’d go weeks without seeing posts from this guy and sometimes he agreed with you, so he was hardly a troll. Lighten up Phil. The worst I can ever recall him doing is tweeking you on baldness; be like me, EMBRACE the coming bald!

  56. Tom Ulcak
  57. DM

    Cool (so to speak)! Are we going to get enough advance notice on this that I’ll be able to stock up on hotdogs and marshmallows?

  58. Don’t worry people!

    You will still die eventually. ;)

  59. The time confuses me. If this star actually goes supernova, it will mean it already went supernova 3300 years ago and only now we are seeing it right? And when would the radiation reach us? 3300 years from now? Or only a few minutes after the light reaches us? And since a telescope is not capable of seeing light any further away from us, only faded light (it cannot see anything whose light has not reached earth, no matter how good it is) we could not know with any advance, right?

    Douglas adams was right – we need more verbal-tenses.

  60. Bix Dugan

    As I was typing I noticed the person above me asked the same question more or less. so here’s a shortened version of my question…….
    Does the explosion/radiation travel at the same velocity as light?

  61. Kyle D

    I don’t really know much about this topic, but a light year is the distance light travels in one year and gamma radiation travels at the same speed as light, right? So if this nova thing is 3300 light years away, wouldn’t it take 3300 years for any explosion/radiation to reach us? I’m sure we’ll destroy the planet on our own long before we would have to worry about it, if it is true. If I’m wrong let me know, like is said i don’t really know a lot about this stuff.

  62. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    @ Spockish:

    Is gravity limited to the speed of light in velocity? I think not or the concept of Warp drive may never happen.

    To add to what DigitalAxis said:

    The small distortions that would be gravity waves (not yet detected) and putative gravitons, would travel with light speed. General relativity, gravity theory, can’t break it’s own rules and light speed is as fast signals can travel.

    But there are situations where spacetime itself can travel faster than light. For example, the universe expands everywhere, and eventually volumes far from an observer will expand relatively faster than emitted light that starts to travel back to him. Thus they won’t reach him. We have an observational horizon (as time goes to infinity), a boundary which we will never see pass. I think, I’m no cosmologist.

    The same applies to Alcubierre’s warp drive solutions, as I understand them. (I’m no theoretical physicist either.) It sets up volumes of spacetime that can travel faster than light. (At least, if you have access to techno-magic of “negative energy” volumes, say provided by putative “exotic materia”.)

    But the concept of warp drive will never happen. Those volumes and their content are supposed to travel faster than light relative to spacetime when they are created. And we don’t know of any process that can take us from below light speed to travel faster than light, to make or populate those bubbles. In fact we know the opposite, it can’t happen according to relativity. So there is a “no go” on that, Scotty!

    @ Dugan:

    Does the explosion/radiation travel at the same velocity as light?

    Massless EM radiation will do so, very light neutrinos nearly so, and so on.

  63. Bix Dugan

    So if Krypton, which was 50 light years away from Earth, and exploded in say 1960… will Superman die tonight from kryptonite radiation poisoning?

  64. Ray McDowell

    So now what am I going to do with all of the rolls tinfoil I bought? LOL!

  65. NovaBoy

    Ahhh yes!! The alarmists are at it again!

    This guy probably is so despondent that global warming has been proven to be such a fraud, he had to come up with some new scare scenario! After all, most of the world is freezing to death. Maybe he thought a super nova would warm us up!

    Every responsible scientist ought to condemn this type of alarmism (and global warming alarmism) in the strongest possible terms.

  66. Gary Ansorge

    67 NovaBoy:

    Rest assured. Someday, something will get you,,,and we alarmists will be there to dance on your grave.

    SO, I guess anyone who points out an alarming trend should just shut up? Isn’t that rather like sticking your head in the sand? As in “Don’t distract me. I’m looking for clams. I don’t care if the sky IS falling.”

    GAry 7

  67. NovaBoy

    Gary Ansorge, I agree that something will someday get me…even if it is just passing away peacefully in my own bed!

    No, anyone who sees a legitimate “alarming trend” SHOULD speak up!

    But too many “scientists” (and that is MY training and background, btw) have sold their soul for research grants! And there is no better way to get huge research money than to create a “crisis”!

    And too many of them (and apparently you too, Gary) cry wolf all the time. And so their credibility is gone. And one day the wolf really WILL show up but they will have no credibility left and so no one will listen to them. Sad but true!

  68. NuckingFutz

    OH CRAP

    How am I gonna come up with $200,000.00 to repay the neighborhood loan shark………….

  69. AC

    Standby for the supernova-themed ‘science’-fiction movie to be released in 2010. This has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood movie PR campaign. Next, we’ll see a PBS ‘Nova’ (a US science show) special about a supernova potentially destroying all life on Earth. Then the ‘news’ shows on television will all have terrifying supernova ‘news’ stories, ad nauseum.

    This will all culminate in the release of a Hollywood ‘science’-fiction ‘blockbuster’ where brainless actors/actresses play hot scientists trying to save the Earth while simultaneously talking about their feelings and trying to convince the impenetrably dense and incompetent government characters that the Earth needs to be saved.

  70. DigitalAxis

    @61 and 62:

    The visible light from the supernova will reach us at exactly the same time as the gravity waves and the gamma rays. Neutrinos have small but non-zero mass and therefore can’t travel at the speed of light but they can get pretty close. Depending on distance and how long it was between the release of the neutrinos and the actual shockwave, the neutrinos might arrive just before or just after the blast- they arrived hours? prior to SN 1987a, which was ~50,000 parsecs away (~170,000 light years) in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

    The cosmic rays and other debris from the actual supernova should arrive shortly after, the exact timing depending on how much slower than light they’re moving, and how distant the supernova event was.

    @72 AC:
    “Mr. Senator, I don’t care about the cost, I care about the survival of the human race. If that gas reaches that star, it won’t just detonate the star… (dramatic front shot) …it will detonate this entire planet! (gasps from the senators) This planet… which we ALL call home. (Hugs female scientist close, her ruby lipstick smudging his pristine white lab coat) This planet I want to live out the rest our lives on, once we solve the mystery of unexplodium and save this world! (applause from the senate) Wait, wait, I have another announcement! Dr. Trudy Goodheart, will you marry me?”
    “Oh Max, that’s the easiest decision I’ve made since deciding to study Quantum Cosmosdynamics!”

  71. Rocky Lane Moore

    My thoughts are simple. Since scientists can not decide how many planets we have, plus they keep changing the numbers of elements on the Periodic Chart and are just finding huge dusty rings around Saturn, I reserve the right to be scared s——- about this huge unstable star lingering a mere three light years away. I am not reassured by your article, because physics is like the weather in Kansas is always changing. If the dinosaurs did not stand a chance, how will a pink skinned biped survive such a chaotic universe. Prove to me the sky is not falling. My knees are still shaking.

  72. Alan

    For you folks confused about the timing… Each “event” that we have seen did indeed happen 3,300 before we observed them. I.E. 1890 minus 3,300 years, 1902 minus 3,300 years, 1920 minus 3,300 years, 1944 minus 3,300 years, and 1966 minus 3,300 years. The statement “It’s currently overdue, since the last event was in 1967″ is misleading. It really means that we observed the last event in 1967. The event at the star took place 3,300 years before that and the light from the event reached us in 1967.

  73. Crazy Tom

    61, 61, 73 – Thanks for the great post, Axis. It’s nice to get a little reason and fact from time to time. To add at 61, the supernova would be like a volcano eruption – we’d get hints and clues, but the bang itself would take us by surprise. Whenever I’m driving the highway and Orion’s high, I always find myself staring at Betelgeuse daring it to go.

    74. There’s a big difference between the scientific inquiries you list and whether a supernova 3300 light years (not 3, as you suggest) would have any harmful effect on the planet. Scientists can’t decide how many planets we have because “planet” is an arbitrary term, like “species.” We invented the word, and we’re simply trying to decide on what we want it to mean. We keep changing the elements on the Periodic Table because we keep inventing new ones that don’t exist in nature. They don’t even exist in our laboratories for more than a tiny fraction of a second before they fall apart. And the dusty rings are just that – cool as they are – dust.

    But we’ve seen a number of supernovae in myriad galaxies since we’ve really started looking, and we see patterns and trends that don’t get broken. A type 1a Supernova has a set amount of energy, because it has a set amount of mass at detonation. We plug in those numbers to this system, and we find that it’ll be pretty, but it won’t fry us.

    You can, and should, fear the space-rocks that helped off the dinosaurs. But this particular pyrotechnic display will only dazzle, not destroy.

  74. Spectroscope

    @74. Rocky Lane Moore Says:

    My thoughts are simple. Since scientists can not decide how many planets we have, plus they keep changing the numbers of elements on the Periodic Chart and are just finding huge dusty rings around Saturn, I reserve the right to be scared s——- about this huge unstable star lingering a mere three light years away.

    Make that over three THOUSAND light years away.

    As far as we know there is NO star at all within just 3 light years of us with the very nearest, Proxima Centauri located at 4.3 light years – although the WISE space telescope is hoping to perhaps find something closer if it exists.

    I am not reassured by your article, because physics is like the weather in Kansas is always changing. If the dinosaurs did not stand a chance, how will a pink skinned biped survive such a chaotic universe. Prove to me the sky is not falling. My knees are still shaking.

    Oh man up! ;-)

    I hope your not serious about your knees shaking. Really! :roll:

    There’s really no need to worry too much and there is nothing we could do at this stage – orlikely ever- against a supernova or Gamma Ray Burst.

    But it is very extraordinarily unlikely to happen or pose us any serious peril. Space is very, very big as Douglas Adams put it and the sort of stars that result in supernovae are exceedingly rare and far apart. We haven’t seen in a supernova in our galaxy for hundreds of years and I, for one, am hoping we do get to see one for the spectacle and what we may learn from it. I have no fear of that whatsoever, only a longing to see such natural fireworks.

    The sky is NOT falling & the end is NOT nigh.

    Claims that Earth is about to suffer The E-E- e-n-n-d have a 100% failure record. ;-)

  75. Spectroscope

    @ 68. Gary Ansorge Says:

    67 NovaBoy: Rest assured. Someday, something will get you,,,and we alarmists will be there to dance on your grave.

    No, the skeptics will long outlive the Alarmists who worry themselves into an early grave over nothing real! ;-)

    Don’t get me started on the AGW, the BA’s pet & protected brand of woo. Really don’t. ;-)

    I’ll just say I completely agree with (67. & 70.) NovaBoy when he says:

    This guy probably is so despondent that global warming has been proven to be such a fraud, he had to come up with some new scare scenario! After all, most of the world is freezing to death. Maybe he thought a super nova would warm us up! Every responsible scientist ought to condemn this type of alarmism (and global warming alarmism) in the strongest possible terms.

    &

    .. too many “scientists” (and that is MY training and background, btw) have sold their soul for research grants! And there is no better way to get huge research money than to create a “crisis”! And too many of them (and apparently you too, Gary) cry wolf all the time. And so their credibility is gone.

  76. About 15yrs ago at around 11pm I went out for a walk, as I walked down the driveway to the west at about 30 degees above the horizon i saw a star getting brighter. At first i thought it was a plane but it didnt move across the sky and it got brighter then expanded and was gone it took 3 or 4 minuits to occur. a year later i read that an astrologer had observer a nova in the same area in the sky . never even got a sun burn!

  77. Mrmojorisin

    @ 73. DigitalAxis:
    ROFLMFAO… you, good sir, have made my evening with that post. I wouldn’t mind seeing that end up as a cringe worthy movie some Saturday night on SyFy. “Quantum Cosmosdynamics”? Priceless.

  78. Kyle D

    Thanks for the clarification Alan.

    @77

    “Claims that Earth is about to suffer The E-E- e-n-n-d have a 100% failure record.”

    So true.

  79. Brian Macker

    We’re not going to ALL DIE!!! YOU DENIER!!! Where’s your peer reviewed article? Are you an astrophysicist or merely an astronomer. Who funds this blog.

  80. MAC

    Nova, hell. If I recall correctly, it was the Pinto that had a reputation of suddenly exploding. The car, not the Animal House character.

  81. Pacman

    If this were a real threat, prior stars closer would have continually killed off the creatures on this planet in the past hundreds of millions of years, and forcing the evolution of simple creatures to start over and over again, never reaching higher states.

    All this is…..is just coke bottom glassed , over-abundant coffee drinkers speaking techinical terms with overtones of gloom and doom, who have always, for the most part, turning out to be wrong. WOW…This kind of thing never happened before….!

    Unfortunaltely for them, If they happen to be right, they won’t have time to brag about it.

  82. Press To Digitate

    All well and good, but Magson (or the author of the book he read) had a great point: IF a nearby GRB had already exploded – say, perhaps, Wolf-Rayet 104 – there is absolutely nothing in our science as yet that would alert us to it prior to the arrival of the gamma ray wavefront, and its destructive consequences. WR104 is the major off-world existential threat we should be concerned with, since we know that both stars are [somewhere] within their last 100,000 years of life (the limits of our discernment), and that it is certainly close enough to cauterize half the planet.

    Real Astronomers would do better to devote their efforts to the more precise characterization of WR-104′s position, orientation, movement, and internal physics rather than fretting over what the ignorant masses fear from their skies. Since the GRB issue with WR-104 is undeniably real, inevitable, and (should we still be in its path at the time) most likely an ‘Extinction Level Event’, the astronomy industry should exploit all the hype about drivel like T Pyxidis, and Apophis, and so on to win Order-of-Magnitude increases in federal spending for the field, and milk “Astrophysical Threat Analysis” for all its worth.

    Is there some psychological quirk here, that Astronomers feel that if people are afraid of astrophysical dangers, that they will somehow fear the Astronomers themselves? NO GUYS, THAT’S NOT WHY YOU ARENT GETTING LAID. The public will only look down on Astronomers who’s arrogance keeps them from discovering, analyzing, and reporting on genuine threats which fall within their responsible purview.

    But, why DO the ancient Chinese ‘Taijitu’ [original, non-stylized] and Olmec/Mayan ‘Hunab Ku’ symbols – both originating 3,500 years ago, handed down by Lizard Gods from the Sky, along with their respective 2012 warnings – both carry excellent representations of the WR-104 spiral nebula on them, as it now appears to us in present time?

  83. Alan Knockwood

    heres one :we are going to be cooked from a Gamma ray burst from wr104 in Sag which is supposed to be 8K light years away but the effects will be here in 2012. right now we are looking right at the northern pole and it will go off at any time. How they timed it I do not know I missed that memo.

  84. Aletta

    @ 79 vern Says:
    “About 15yrs ago at around 11pm I went out for a walk, as I walked down the driveway to the west at about 30 degees above the horizon i saw a star getting brighter. At first i thought it was a plane but it didnt move across the sky and it got brighter then expanded and was gone it took 3 or 4 minuits to occur. a year later i read that an astrologer had observer a nova in the same area in the sky . never even got a sun burn!”

    I don’t know much about the scientific side of things (although I love listening to, reading and watching all of it), but my husband claimed to have seen the same thing. I tried writing to some astronomers online but never received any responses. We just wanted to know if it was possible that what he saw was SN 1987a. My husband passed away 3 years ago but I would still love to know the answer.

  85. Stuart van Onselen

    Press To Digitate: Nice Poe. I was actually taking you seriously until the Lizard Gods bit.

    The 9/11 “Truthers” won the “Most Obnoxious Group on the Web” for about 8 straight years. But now the AGW Deniers are making a string bid for that trophy, by insisting on inserting their brainless natterings (“sold their souls for research grants” – WTF?) on every FSM-darned thread, no matter how off-topic.

  86. The experts here have calmed my nerves – no imminent disaster, apparently.

    My real worry was that no one would be around to write the 6,500,000,000 simultaneous obituaries.

  87. Plutonium being from Pluto

    The Bad Astronomer has already covered WR104 & the slight but real potential threat it poses.

    See : http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2008/03/03/wr-104-a-nearby-gamma-ray-burst/

    Its up there as a contender for the Most Dangerous Star to Humanity award ahead of Eta Carinae, T Pyxidis & HR 8210 – see comment 50 here by Messier Tidy Upper.

    @ 87. Stuart van Onselen Says:

    AGW Deniers are making a string bid for that trophy,

    How long is the piece of string they’re bidding? ;-)

    (I know, I know, I can’t type either! Sorry just couldn’t resist. ;-) )

  88. His prejudices about popular newspapers aside, the Lazy Astronomer follows the age-old tradition of “shooting the messenger”. Though the press release used the word “Soon” for when the supernova explosion might occur, along with the astonishing phrase “fry the Earth”, it was The Sun that made sure a par was included quoting a British astronomer to say that a blast was a long way of and so not to have nightmares. (This was later copied by the Telegraph).
    On a positive note, several million tabloid readers now know an element of astrophysics with the make-up of the T Pyx binary system and what happens when a white dwarf reaches critical mass. ;-)

  89. o rly

    This made it to Fark, this has to be the third time in the last 12 months Phil has made it there. He’s officially my hero!

  90. Jerry Ferguson

    “My real worry was that no one would be around to write the 6,500,000,000 simultaneous obituaries.”

    That’s funny. MY one big worry is that there would be ONE left (me) to write the remaining 5,499,000,000 obits. THAT’S a full time job!

  91. Unfortunately, Phil did get some of the facts about recurrent novae wrong in his blog rebuffing Scion’s claims when he wrote, “Lots of recurrent novae are known, and are fairly well understood.”

    Not exactly. The currently known recurrent novae are T Pyx, IM Nor, CI Aql, V2487 Oph, U Sco, V394 CrA, T CrB, RS Oph, V745 Sco, and V3890 Sgr. That is only ten stars. Out of the billions of stars in our galaxy, thousands of known cataclysmic variables and hundreds of known galactic novae, ten are known to be recurrent novae. Recurrent novae, like R CrB type stars are actually quite a rare phenomena, as far as we know.

    If they were fairly well understood, the definitive paper to date on the subject of their history and behavior, Comprehensive Photometric Histories of All Known Galactic Recurrent Novae by Bradley E. Schaefer, would not still be asking at its heart: What is the death rate of RNe in our galaxy, are the white dwarfs gaining or losing mass over each eruption cycle, and whether or not RNe can be the progenitors of Type Ia supernovae.

    Given a little time to reconsider what he wrote, I’m sure Phil would change that sentence. On the other hand, I have to give him credit for coining one of 2010′s leading candidates for ‘best skeptical science phrase’ when he came up with “disaster-porn”.

  92. Simostronomy (#95): I don’t think what I said was wrong; I was non-specific in how many we knew of, for example. Also, the basics of how they work — the matter transfer from one star to another — is to what I was referring.

  93. If this little mass-exchange binary DOES exceed the Chandrasekhar Limit, collapse into a neutron star, and give of a Type Ia Supernova — how bright will it be when seen from Earth?

    I know SN 1987 A was in the LMC, making it around 170,000 ly away, and it was a naked-eye object. This little guy is a scant 3300 ly away.

    Assuming a Type Ia Supernova is the same brightness as SN 1987 A — which it won’t be, but I need something to use as a basis for comparison here — the Type Ia Supernova from 3300 ly away will have 2500 times the apparent Luminosity of SN 1987 A, which is about 8-and-a-half magnitudes.

    SN 1987A peaked at a Vmag of +3. This means the Type Ia Supernova, using my oversimplified calculations, would be Vmag -5.5 or so, brighter than Venus when seen from the Earth.

    Now, if BETELGEUSE were to go boom, it’s about 5 times closer than this potential Type Ia Supernova here, which would make it 25 times more luminous (3.5 magnitudes) brighter still. It would still be dimmer than the full moon, but not by a whole lot. (It would be dimmer than the Sun, too, of course, but the Sun is notoriously hard to see in the night sky.)

  94. Pi-needles

    the Sun is notoriously hard to see in the night sky.

    Really? Why would that be I wonder? Oh yeah, it *is* pretty dark once its been turned off isn’t it! ;-)

  95. Spectroscope

    @ 97 tracer:

    If this little mass-exchange binary DOES exceed the Chandrasekhar Limit, collapse into a neutron star, and give of a Type Ia Supernova …

    If – or more likely when – T Pyx does go supernova it won’t “collapse into a neutron star ” but be totally destroyed in the process. Type Ia “white dwarf” supernova don’t leave any remnant “star” or collapsar behind but instead only a lot of stardust and new elements.

    Now, if BETELGEUSE were to go boom, it’s about 5 times closer than this potential Type Ia Supernova here

    Funny you should mention Betelgeux here as its just in the BA news now – see :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/01/12/spotting-betelgeuse/

    Figures on Betelgeux’s distance vary and are uncertain but the latest figure of 640 ly is certainly many times closer than the 3,000 ly for T Pyxidis.

    Stellar expert and author James Kaler’s superb Stars website says :

    If it (Betelgeux – ed) were to explode today, it would become as bright as a gibbous Moon, would cast strong shadows on the ground, and would be seen easily in full daylight.

    For more see :

    http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/betelgeuse.html

  96. Tom

    Phil here is best at having his buddies verbally abuse people on his website then locking their chosen punching bag out of the forum and claiming that he did something wrong by complaining about the ill treatment. That’s how science is run these days.

  97. Tom (#100): What are you talking about? coolstar is hardly a punching bag for commenters. On the contrary, nearly every single comment he left was insulting to me in some way. I am far more liberal about allowing such attacks on me than I am when commenters attack each other, but I do have my limits.

  98. Tom

    And those limits are transcended when one of your pals abuses someone and he complains about it.

  99. tom hoffelder aka rocksnstars

    You think it is bad that The Daily Telegraph said we are going to be wiped out! What about the last paragraph on this Astronomy Magazine page? Below that it says “three reasons to subscribe to Astronomy….” I would say that is one big reason not to subscribe!

    http://www.astronomy.com/asy/default.aspx?c=a&id=8944

  100. Messier Tidy Upper

    @37. Lugosi : Dang Mayans were right after all…

    No they weren’t! ;-)

    PS. Dang it, I wish I could trust my memory enough to be posting this sometime in 2013 but since I can’t.. I’m posting now. ;-)

  101. Graeme Bird

    You are talking nonsense Phil. Yes a close-by supernova will indeed lead to a series of catastrophic events. This is not only bad information you are giving out here. Its irresponsible, since we humans need to invest ahead of catastrophic events.

    You are capable of testing this:

    I think you will find that every supernova visible to the naked eye came from the same shockwave that caused Vela. Prove that interpretation wrong and you may have a case.

  102. What is happening in NGC 7318 a&b are not supernovae!
    These events are the result of stars colliding at vector velocities, producingenergy levels far exceeding what are perceived to be supernova activity.The so-called “experts” don’t understand the cosmos, otherwise they wouldn’t be perplexed by blueshift.A supernova++ event close to earth would put Kentucky out of the chicken business. Best you all figure out why M31 and the galaxies in Virgo show blueshift.It’s all about gravity, gravity, gravity and more gravity; and I’m not talking about apples falling out of trees; I’m talking about polarized gravity accrued over 6 billion years , or so! Einstein was right about energy , within a galaxy, but he was wrong about extra-galactic energy, really wrong!! All that crap about time -warp! Get real! Now you best think about what quasars really are!

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