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As we wrap up 2022, we'd like to celebrate a few of the cosmic “winners” discovered this year, at least while they still hold their titles.

Hosted by: Reid Reimers (he/him)
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Sources:


https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/08/220829112925.htm
https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/2041-8213/ac88c1
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/10/221005111908.htm
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-022-05195-x
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/03/220330124628.htm
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-022-04449-y

Images

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Southern_Ring_Nebula_by_Webb_Telescope_(2022).jpg
https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/resources/2206/life-and-death-of-a-planetary-system/
https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/chandra/images/helix-nebula.html
https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/30858
https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/12706
https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/13512
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Accretion_Disk_Binary_System.jpg
https://www.eso.org/public/videos/eso2207c/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Sunrise_Arc_galaxy_with_lensed_star_Earendel_-b.png
https://www.nasa.gov/content/hubble-sees-a-smiling-lens
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Keplers_supernova.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:M37_Mazur_full.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:NGC6781.jpg
https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/2041-8213/ac88c1
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NASA-Star-Earendel-HubbleST-20220330.png
[ intro ] Astronomers have discovered some pretty extreme, record breaking stuff as  they’ve explored the universe.

Each new discovery could be the next new biggest, oldest,  or fastest, and so on. So as we wrap up 2022, let’s celebrate a few  of the cosmic “winners” discovered this year… at least while they still hold their titles!

First up is the oldest known planetary nebula, which astronomers found in a group  of gravitationally bound stars known as the open cluster M37. Despite their name, planetary nebulas  don’t have anything to do with planets. They are actually big bubbles of gas  leftover from when a star like our Sun dies.

But when seen through a small telescope they kind of look like a planet  does through the same telescope. They both look like smudges. When the star runs out of fuel, its outer  layers of gas are shed into interstellar space, and the core collapses into a hot,  dense ball called a white dwarf.

As it cools down, the white  dwarf emits a ton of light, which interacts with all that gas  producing some very lovely pictures. By studying that light, scientists can also  calculate a planetary nebula’s kinematic age… basically, how old they think it should be based on how fast the gas is  speeding away from its white dwarf. Most of the time, these  nebulas only last for 5,000 to   25,000 years before the gasses  become too spread out to see.

But this nebula appears to be  a whopping 70,000 years old! And it’s also special in another,  not quite record breaking way. Out of the 4,000-odd planetary nebulas that  astronomers have cataloged in the Milky Way, this is only the third that’s  been found in an open cluster.

Since stars in a cluster all tend to form at  the same time from the same big clump of gas, this gives astronomers a kind  of space-based laboratory. They can study this nebula’s  relationship with its sibling stars to learn more about the star that died, and  to better predict what any particular star will look like as a white dwarf  and planetary nebula in the future. Maybe we’ll apply that  knowledge to the Sun one day, and get some pretty models of what our planetary nebula  could be, long after we’re gone.

Speaking of white dwarfs, our next record  goes to a white dwarf and its stellar partner for having the fastest orbital  period for this type of dynamic duo. They circle each other once every 51 minutes. Unlike our Sun, many stars live  out their lives with a companion.

Sometimes the two stars have similar masses,  but sometimes they’re really different. And when they’re different, the star that’s  more massive will run through its life   cycle more quickly, because it shines  brighter and uses up its fuel faster. That’s what happened for our record-setters.

The white dwarf has a mass which  is roughly half that of our Sun, but that means the star it came  from was more massive than that. Meanwhile, the star it’s co-orbiting is tiny.  It’s only about a tenth the mass of the Sun. And they’re orbiting each other this fast  because they’re super close together.

Basically, you’ve got a star and a stellar  remnant in an orbit smaller than our Sun is! Scientists were able to determine these  masses, as well as that 51-minute orbit, by studying the change in brightness as they  eclipsed each other from Earth’s perspective. But that light also showed these  stars are special in another way.

The white dwarf is stealing the  hydrogen gas off of its stellar buddy. Binaries that do this have a  special name: Cataclysmic Variables. Astronomers have been hunting for a system where the white dwarf has  transitioned out of stealing hydrogen, because it’s already got all of  it, and starts stealing helium.

Computer models predict this  white dwarf is very nearly there… at least on astronomical time scales. The transition is scheduled to  happen in 75 million years or so, and all the while the two objects are expected  to continue spiraling in towards each other. When the white dwarf starts stealing helium, they’ll be so close that their  orbit will only be 18 minutes long!

But they aren’t doomed to crash into one another. Because of all this mass transfer, the white  dwarf will grow and the star will balloon out, pushing them apart until they settle  into an orbit about half an hour long. But that’ll take another 300 million years, so you might want to make yourself a snack  before settling in to watch that near miss.

Finally, we jump from the Milky  Way to a galaxy far, far away. Back in March, astronomers announced the  discovery of a star nicknamed Earendel… the most distant individual star ever detected. The light we’re seeing now  has spent 12.9 billion years traveling across the universe to reach us.

But because the space between galaxies  has also been expanding this whole time, it’s way more than 12.9 billion light years away. Normally, you wouldn’t be able to separate  out the light of one star from its galaxy. But in Earendel’s case, a unique alignment  of cosmic features fell into place.

The star is part of a galaxy  known as the Sunrise Arc, which gets its name from its funky shape. But the galaxy only looks  that way because of an effect called gravitational lensing. Astronomers are trying to look at the  Sunrise Arc through a galaxy cluster whose mass distorts spacetime and bends  the light traveling through and around it.

This happens in tons of space images. Objects get duplicated,  distorted, and also magnified. And that magnification is what  happened to Earendel’s light, making it look brighter than  it would normally appear.

While Earendel is the most distant star  ever detected, it’s not the oldest. It’s true that the farther away we look, the further back in time we are looking. But that doesn’t necessarily  mean that the object emitting the light we are looking at still exists.

Researchers estimate that Earendel would have  been around 50 times the mass of our Sun, which would make it a very  hot and short lived star. It would have exploded as a supernova  after ten or so million years… many billions of years before  our solar system even formed. Even though Earendel doesn’t  actually exist anymore, scientists can still study its light to learn a bout what the universe was  like 12.9 billion years ago.

But first, we need to  actually confirm it’s a star, and not some other source of light. That’ll be a job for the  James Webb Space Telescope, when it manages to find the time. These record breakers may soon  find themselves dethroned, as humanity keeps pushing the boundaries of what we can detect across the universe.

But each step we take builds on what came before. So stay tuned for 2023 Whatever extreme discoveries astronomers make you can be sure the SciShow Space team  is eager to cover as many as we can. So if you want to keep up with  the latest record holders, make sure you’re subscribed.

Thanks for watching! [ outro ]