Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The biggest ever space explosion has occurred – what do you mean you don’t care? | Rhiannon Neads

Something pretty huge happened in space recently. Well, that’s not strictly true – to be more accurate, something truly gargantuan happened in space approximately 8 billion years ago, that we are only just finding out about now. Last Friday, scientists revealed the largest cosmic explosion ever witnessed: like a supernova, but more than 10 times brighter and more powerful than any other seen before. And its cause? A giant cloud of gas being sucked into a supermassive black hole.

If you want people to be excited about something, it’s important to come up with a catchy name. So, taking a leaf out of Elon Musk’s book of baby names, scientists called it AT2021lwx. But I’m gonna call her Sue. Sue Pernova. (You’re welcome.)

Sue had humble beginnings. She started out like the damp patch in the corner of your bathroom – small and barely noticeable, then over the course of time growing into something monstrous and without precedent. It was only when scientists established just how distant Sue was (8 billion lightyears) that they realised quite how much energy she must be burning to produce a light so bright.

This is all well and good, I hear you cry, but why should I care? Sue seems great, but she lives miles away and besides I’m far too busy having to do the weekly shop, picking up the kids from school and Googling “black mould removal”. Well, I’ve been a space superfan since I was old enough to say “Houston we have a problem”, so you don’t have to convince me to care. But space can give us an insight into our existence.

There are certain aspects of space exploration that are easy to defend. Like the Dart mission last year which successfully tested technology designed to shift an asteroid off its course, protecting Earth and its inhabitants from a fatal collision. Most of us have a vested interest in the Earth not being smashed to smithereens, so it’s great to know that Nasa is on the case.

Some of the other stuff, though, is far more abstract and, for want of a better word, nerdy. But the truth is, every time something like this happens it puts another piece in the puzzle of understanding where we came from and where we will go.

We all know some basic things about the universe and our solar system from our school days: Jupiter has its raging stormy eye, Saturn has its rings, and Pluto has an identity crisis about its latest reclassification. But what you perhaps didn’t know, because they only found out recently, is that Saturn didn’t always have its rings.

A study from the University of Colorado suggests that the rings are only 400 million years old, with Saturn being nearer 4.5 billion years in age. Those figures are quite hard to get your head around, but if you scale that timeline down, it’s the equivalent of an 85-year-old bloke called Stanley deciding to grow a mo-hawk at 81. That’s a pretty wild and late-stage development, right? Certainly not something to define his whole existence by.

In the even blinkier-blink of an eye that is the period of human existence, we happen to have magically coincided with this beautiful phenomenon. Us being here now at the same time of Saturn’s rings is a delightful coincidence: a reminder that everything is fleeting, everything is changing, even in the universe.

Someone sent me a meme recently with a picture of the galaxy and an arrow pointing to a barely visible dot labelled “You, crying in the shower”. Apart from being very funny, it’s also very true (the crying bit, certainly). I find the underlying message of it weirdly profound. We are all so very small and the universe is so very big and almost all of our hopes, dreams and fears are entirely trivial.

If that doesn’t sound particularly comforting, stick with me. In 2009, Nasa released captures from the Hubble telescope showing the deepest image of the universe ever taken to date, allowing you to scroll in and out of hundreds of galaxies and solar systems that seemingly go on for ever. If you ever need a moment of profound perspective, that does it.

Cosmically speaking, if we are all insignificant, then everything we do is almost in defiance of that. It renders the choices we make simultaneously meaningless and also the most wonderful act of living; one more beautiful addition to an already improbable existence. That’s a pretty liberating thought. It’s all connected. Like it or not, we’re all part of a kind of celestial foxtrot: expanding, contracting, dying and being reborn.

So next time you hear about something happening a million miles away, think about how you’re a small part of that and how incredible it is to exist. Why not look out of your window tonight – maybe you’ll see the light from some supernova long since gone. And who knows, perhaps someone 8 billion lightyears away will be looking back from their damp, damp, bathroom, seeing the dead light from our sun and wondering about their own place in the universe.

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