MadSci Network: Astronomy

Re: What will the effect of the light from the Hourglass Nebula have on earth.

Date: Sat Apr 20 16:12:59 2002
Posted By: Chris Lintott, Undergraduate, Physics
Area of science: Astronomy
ID: 1018902738.As

Thanks for your question. First of all I'm a little confused by your reference to the "hourglass nebula." I know of at least two objects with this name; one was first imaged in detail with the Hubble Space Telescope and the other is within the larger nebula Messier 8 and was first noted by Sir John Herschel.

Both these objects lie within our Galaxy, while Supernova 1987A occured in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way. As you'll see from the link, it does have hourglass rings around it, so I'm guessing that's what you're referring to. These rings are expanding, and as the shock wave from the supernova rushes out at nearly the speed of light it excites the gas to produce the light we see.

Some of this light could be in the form of laser light---that is to say, it's what physicists would call "coherent" light. Light is just a form of electromagnetic radiation---it's basically a wave of electrical disturbance passing through space. In coherent, or laser, light these electrical disturbances point in the same direction right across the beam (in everyday light, the direction is random and changing constantly). However in the case of SN 1987A, the explosion was so chaotic that electromagnetic interactions between particles that produce the light we see would have yielded very little coherent light. Even if there was some coherent light formed, though, don't worry---the power is way too low to cause any effect to the solar system. Not all lasers are immensely powerful, and coherent cosmic sources are much weaker than a standard laser pointing tool by the time it reaches us.

[Moderator: There have been some experiments involving high-power lasers here on Earth in an effort to produce scaled-down examples of the after-effects of a supernova.]

Thanks for your question!

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