You are here

The Stinger

July 23, 2016

The celestial scorpion has a potent stinger. The two stars at the end of its tail — the stars that mark the stinger — are bright, big, and heavy. And at least one of them is likely to suffer a sting of its own: it’ll explode as a supernova. In fact, it may explode twice.

The stars are known as Lambda and Upsilon Scorpii. Lambda is the brighter of the two, with Upsilon close to the right.

Upsilon is perhaps 10 or 11 times the mass of the Sun — quite hefty by stellar standards. And Lambda consists of at least three stars. The main star is a little heavier than Upsilon, while another is quite similar to Upsilon.

The stars of the stinger are probably just 10 million to 15 million years old — a tiny fraction of the age of the Sun. Yet they’re already nearing the ends of their lives. As they get closer to the end, they’ll puff up, getting much bigger and brighter.

Before long, though, each star will reach a stage where it can no longer produce nuclear reactions in its core. The core will collapse. Then, if the star is heavy enough, its outer layers will blast into space, forming a titanic explosion known as a supernova.

That’s almost certainly the fate of the brighter star of Lambda Scorpii. And depending on their exact masses, it could also be the fate of Lambda’s other bright star, and of Upsilon as well — creating a series of blasts that could briefly increase the “sting” of the scorpion.

More about the scorpion tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield

Get Premium Audio

Listen to today's episode of StarDate on the web the same day it airs in high-quality streaming audio without any extra ads or announcements. Choose a $8 one-month pass, or listen every day for a year for just $30.