To most people, stars are twinkling lights in the night sky, and if you happen to be feeling pedantic, the reason we have light and aren’t all dead (Because the sun is a star, in case that wasn’t clear). When you watch as much Discovery Science channel as I do, though, you begin to see that stars are not unlike evil parents; necessary but completely terrifying.
Our sun is a very mediocre star by most astronomical standards, and even it shoots out arcs of plasma that our planet would fit through with plenty of elbow room and is capable of Apocalyptic hissy fits. Even if it doesn’t accidentally kill us all before, eventually it will grow so large that it will swallow Earth whole, after it has baked and boiled everything off the surface (But don’t worry, we’ll all be long dead by then. See? Everything has a silver lining)
But once you see what the rest of the stars have in store for their solar systems, you will see why ours is considered so mundane. Because….
6. Stars Have Terrifying Powers
Ironically, this is the least terrifying thing I have for you. Stars flare up on a regular cycle; our sun has an 11 year cycle of activity where once a decade+ it’s sunspot and magnetic activity picks up and it starts firing off solar flares and coronal mass ejections more often than in the intervening years. This increases the odds that one of these cosmic shotguns will be pointed at Earth (and adjusting for orbital lead-angle) when it goes off and bathe the earth in a supercharged stream of energized particles and other radiation. This makes the sky very pretty because auroras start going haywire not just at the poles (some have happened as far south as Texas during particularly powerful ones), but has the consequence of frying satellites and screwing with the electrical grid.
Luckily, since our sun is relatively “small”, these aren’t world-ending. Bigger and more energetic stars fire off much bigger flares, and if they are orbited by planets harboring intelligent life, they must live in constant terror of being microwaved out of existence. But we don’t have to worry about that, right? Well, maybe we do.
The biggest recorded solar flare/Earth mix-up happened in 1859 and is now called the Carrington Event after the scientist Richard Carrington who saw the flare by projecting the sun onto a screen. In the modern world, it would have been a catastrophe. Scientists have discovered that “sun-like” stars, IE, the “boring”, “mediocre” ones are capable of producing “super flares“; In other words, 10 to 10,000 times the power of the Carrington Event. That moves the flares from “Oh no, CNN is down for an hour” to “Oh My GOD! Knowing was a bad movie, but it was right!”
The good news is that it is unlikely that we will be unlucky enough to be murdered by our maker; only 148 of the 83,000 sun-like stars observed have displayed this phenomena. That’s about a 0.0017% chance of our sun even being included in those odds, and even then, it’s not like those stars are firing one off every month or so, so it’s pretty rare. On the other hand, it’s like dying in a plane crash; just because it’s rare doesn’t mean it isn’t terrifying.
5. There Are Kaiju (or “Giant Rubber Monster”) Stars
Kaiju is the genre of movie that includes Mothra, Godzilla and Rodan. If you think Godzilla is just a bad 90’s movie starring Ferris Beuller, then please go away now. Your pageviews offend me. The parallel here between the Japanese movie monsters and stars is pretty clear once you look at them side by side; both refer to giant radioactive monsters that rise up for a relatively short period of time and cause untold destruction before/while going away.
Stars are huge, period. Our sun’s radius is 109 times that of the Earth; some quick math shows that the volume of the sun is therefore 1,295,029 times that of the Earth! In case you hadn’t noticed, compared to our planet, we’re pretty insignificant. In fact, it took one of the world’s most populous countries to build a dam that offset 42 billion tons of water to slow the entire planet by a millisecond. That’s a lot of effort for a very tiny change.
With that perspective in mind, consider Sirius. It’s the brightest star in the night sky and twice the size of our sun. If it was our sun, we would likely not even exist if we had our current orbit. But that’s nothing, Arcturus is 26 times the size of our sun. Its edge would swallow Mars. That would be bad news for us since you need to be outside a star to have a planet and a planet is pretty necessary for us to exist (at our present level of technology).
Betelgeuse is even bigger, at roughly 1000 times our sun’s size. It would reach Jupiter if it was our sun, which is just fine because it is in its waning years and is probably going to explode soon (in stellar time, that is). But the Mecha-Godzilla of all stars is VY Canis Majoris. One of but a few hypergiant stars known to science, it is a monster in the truest sense of the word; it is 2000 times the size of our sun, and would extend out to Saturn if it was placed in our solar system. That means we would have 2 planets, Uranus and Neptune. It is freakishly energetic, and is regularly casting off its outer layers, signalling that its end is coming and making our little superflares look like a mouse sneeze.
As a hypergiant, it is looking to create one of the most explosive events in the universe in the “near” future; a hypernova. (No one accused science of being creative) The odds are heavily in favor of VY CM’s death creating a black hole since the sheer heat and mass of the star promise to create a mind-blowing amount of inward pressure when gravity finally wins the war against fusion’s outward pressure.
4. When They Die, They Take Everything Else With Them
It’s a time honored tradition in horror movies, the monster comes back for one last scare, usually trying to bring the hero down with them. The queen grabbed Ripley’s foot in Aliens to avoid getting sucked into space, and the Predator blew up a giant section of rain forest because up yours, Arnold. Stars are even worse.
They don’t need to be supernova-waiting-to-happen size stars to be a complete dick to the neighbors as a dying star. Normal stars like our own sun will eventually burn hotter and lose mass, causing them to swell into a red giant. Our sun will kill everything closer to it than Mars. At this point, it’s no longer converting hydrogen to helium, but instead making carbon and oxygen from the helium. Now, if for some reason you were in the solar system and survived the red giant phase, the sun will eventually shed all of its outer layers, coughing off its warmth and leaving behind a white dwarf. This will still be insanely hot, and your fingers will stick to it if you touch it (but good news, you won’t feel it because the rest of you will be cooked as well as crushed under its massive gravity); they figure that white dwarves will lose heat on the order of trillions of years since they radiate it away (which is inefficient) and are so dense.
The bad news is that since they are radiating heat and not pumping out massive amounts of light, they are the stellar equal of someone burning their house down across town; it’s hot there, but it doesn’t do a thing about the fact that your furnace is broken. Jupiter will probably be okay since it creates more heat than it receives from the sun, but everyone else is screwed.
But then there are the stars that go supernova (and hypernova). In a process I’ll get to in another entry, really big stars burn hot and heavy (literally) and once they burn through hydrogen, helium, carbon and oxygen, they just keep fusing heavier and heavier elements until a magic element is hit (Just wait! It gets its own entry!) and the pressure created by the fusion is not enough to oppose gravity and the star falls in on itself. The enormous mass of the star falls in on its core, crushing it and generating a nuclear blast so big it destroys the entire solar system and any others within an arm’s reach (“arm’s reach” being tens of light years in every direction)
It doesn’t end there; these events can fire off a gamma ray burst (one of the universe’s most energetic events) from each end, spelling doom for anything that happens to be in either direction. They also can fling planets and companion stars off at enormous speeds, creating hypervelocity stars and rogue (and hypervelocity) planets (and theoretically, hypervelocity black holes).
3. They Have A Fatal Weakness
Every good monster has some weakness to level the playing field. If a monster is completely unkillable, then it becomes a boring death machine and the heroes are just fodder, and everyone knows watching Rush Limbaugh at a buffet goes from “Cthulhu-horror” to “fat guy destroying the shrimp-dish” pretty fast. This is why vampires (real vampires) die in sunlight and werewolves can be killed by silver.
For massive stars, their weakness is iron. Okay, iron that they make. So I guess they are like a werewolf that craps silver bullets. When massive stars burn through their H, He and C, they begin making heavier elements like silicon, neon and nickel (not in that order). All of this leads to the eventual production of iron, which turns into that scene in Alien 3 where they douse the monster in water after it jumps out of liquid lead and it explodes.
See, every element produced through fusion up until iron produces energy in the process; in hydrogen fusion, two hydrogen atoms cram together to form a helium atom and some energy is released. This is why 1 helium atom is actually slightly lighter than 2 hydrogen atoms. Iron, however uses more energy than is released when it fuses, so that tips the scale. It also does a nice job of absorbing energy and holding on to it, so within seconds of producing iron, the pressure pushing out from the core of the star is gone and it collapses on itself. Kind of a metaphorical stake through the heart.
2. They Come In “Cannibal/Vampire”
A white dwarf, in a sense, is a “zombie” star. Though technically dead, they continue on, spinning and radiating and giving off all kinds of gravity (that’s how gravity works, right?). On their own, they aren’t terribly bad news because space is big and they are typically about the size of earth. On the other hand, if they happen to be part of a binary star system, things can get really bad.
If a white dwarf is close enough to its companion star, it begins accreting material from the other one. It is essentially cannibalizing the other star, siphoning off gas which then begins to build up a uniform deposit on the surface of the dwarf. This sounds almost like maybe earth sucking up the trail of a comet until you realize that we’re talking about the gravity of half a sun on an area the size of an Earth. This pressure and heat can sometimes lead to the siphoned material starting a fusion reaction in the dwarf’s, which almost sounds like a white dwarf pulling a Jesus and rising from the grave.
Unfortunately, that metaphor only works if Jesus detonated like a planet-sized nuclear weapon after stepping out of the grave. Think of it this way; you had a twin, and it died. But its body followed you around for years afterward, sucking your blood, until it one day reached critical mass and exploded, killing you and everyone in the room with you. That is a type Ia supernova. If the material on the surface doesn’t trigger a reaction in the core, it can still blow up from time to time on the outside of the white dwarf, resulting in a regular old nova. (Or “Jesus’ skin blew up) Regular novas can happen over and over again, while the Ia supernova is the result of the white dwarf almost instantly destroying itself.
1. Their Corpses Are More Dangerous Than The Living
And finally there is the “even the dead ones are dangerous” trope. The creature from the Alien movies is actually just as if not more deadly once it dies, because then it becomes a Tupperware container full of acid. Zombies are just dead people, yet somehow more dangerous than your average American. With stars, they just get weirder and more deadly.
On the “mundane but not really, holy crap that’s odd” end of the scale we have neutron stars. These are the remains of a star that was big enough to go all supernova, but not enough to shove its core past the Schwarzschild radius into a black hole. They are made of pure “degenerate matter”, that is to say cube-shaped neutrons held in place by massive gravity. imagine several suns sitting in a cramped 20 mile area. The only thing keeping the neutrons from exploding into a proton, electron and neutrino (as well as some pure energy) is the sheer weight of the object pulling it all together.
Since the neutrons wiggle ever so slightly and create pressure, the star doesn’t implode. Meanwhile, they spin (sometimes thousands of times a second) and in some cases fire off twin beams of energy, in which case they are called a pulsar. Both types radiate deadly radiation in all directions, except the pulsars have 2 beams of “extra horror” to kill you with.
If the super/hypernova generated enough inward pressure, the core of the star will pass the Schwarzchild radius and form an object whose escape velocity is the speed of light; a black hole. Along with fun words like spaghettification(caused by the enormous gravity of the black hole pulling on your feet with a different intensity than your head if they are closer), black holes often have accretion disks circling them. This happens if the hole is trying to devours more matter than it can pull in at once; the stuff that doesn’t quite fit whips around the event horizon, gaining speed and heat and eventually firing off giant spouts of electromagnetic energy (when this forms during the supernova, you get a gamma ray burst). Black holes may be gateways to other worlds (theoretically possible) but they definitely start off in the worst possible way.
Then there are magnetars, which are neutron stars that generate massive magnetic fields and are the most magnetic things in the universe. They are possibly worse than any of the rest of the list; they share an aura of incredibly deadly radiation, and are made of super-dense degenerate matter, but they produce a magnetic field so powerful that they can make the atoms that make up your body cigar shaped, killing you instantly.
That magnetic field also makes them terrifyingly dangerous even at great distances. A “starquake” on a magnetar 50,000 light years away nearly killed a bunch of satellites as it bathed the earth in radiation back in 2004. it is estimated that the crust of the magnetar moved about a centimeter, but since it is so dense, it was the same as a magnitude 23 earthquake. The disruption in the magnetic field caused a howitzer-blast of radioactive material to be fired off into space with enough energy to scare the crap out of us over half the width of our galaxy.
Don’t worry, though. The closest magnetar we know about is 13,000 light years away, or one third the distance.