Since the dawn of man (and woman), humankind has gazed longingly at the flickering stars high above in search of meaning, guidance, and inspiration. A gradual progression in science and technology has taught us much about our faraway skies — namely, that it’s cold, dark, and tantalizingly mysterious up there. It’s also scarier than Hell.
Nonetheless, it’s hard not to daydream about the outer limits or simply laugh at Captain Kirk and that space lizard in the worst fight scene ever filmed. Although many elements of the final frontier remain elusive, recent discoveries have revealed an array of terrifying threats that will keep even the bravest star warriors hiding under the covers with the lights on at night.
10. Meteor Showers
Imagine cruising along in your Honda or Chevy GUV (Galactic Utility Vehicle) blasting sound waves on the ol’ satellite when suddenly out of nowhere — BLAMMO — you’re blindsided by a huge boulder. Not only is your insurance rate going to skyrocket, but the nearest space side assistance is billions of miles away. Bummer.
Although this scenario may seem like a sci-fi nightmare, a similar occurrence actually occurred on planet earth in 2013 after a meteorite exploded over the Ural mountains in Russia. By the time the dust settled, over 400 people had been injured, underscoring the disturbing reality that cascading debris can strike without warning.
Fortunately, most large falling objects burn up while traveling through the earth’s atmosphere. Space travelers in the future, however, will have to dodge a spate of other potential hazards, including meteors, comets, and asteroids.
9. Black Holes
Q: What traps light, warps time, and operates on a colossal scale but yet can’t be seen? A: Black Holes. True to its enigmatic label, black holes have been mythically confounding ever since Albert Einstein first introduced the notion with his general theory of relativity in 1916.
Recently, astronomers took the first image ever of a black hole via the Event Horizon Telescope, a network of eight linked telescopes around the world. Although many questions still remain unanswered, black holes are characterized by the way they affect nearby debris, stars, and galaxies — and typically form out of the death of a large star called a supernova (more on that that later). Unlike a planet or star, a black hole doesn’t have a surface but rather occupies a region where matter has collapsed on itself. The amount of concentrated mass is such that nothing can escape its gravitational pull — not even light — and certainly not an astronaut who makes a disastrous wrong turn while lost in space.
Black holes exist in many different sizes, and similar to tornadoes, they tend to move around at high speeds, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Even a small one in our Solar System would be catastrophic, tossing planets out of orbit and ripping the sun to shreds. Although intrepid explorers will be tempted to visit these dark voids, nothing so far has ever survived a trip to a black hole.
8. Solar Flares
Our sun is a glorious, awe-inspiring star that provides warmth, light and the necessary temperature for precious life to exist. It’s also steadily expanding —and will someday completely destroy earth, torching our beloved planet like a marshmallow that’s been left too long around a campfire. Fortunately, that won’t happen for billions of years, but in the meantime, solar flares are capable of inflicting tremendous damage with little or no warning.
A solar flare is a violent eruption that occurs when stored energy on the sun is suddenly released. This produces another one of those ridiculous hotter-than-Hell numbers, releasing a flash of radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum.
Scientists classify solar flares according to their brightness and in relation to x-ray wavelengths. The largest of categories, X-class flares, are large, disruptive events that can severely damage satellites, wipe out power grids, and basically relegate all “smart” technology to stupid pieces of crap.
7. Eridanus Supervoid
First of all, stop your juvenile snickering. No, this isn’t slang for an epic bowel movement or anything of the sordid kind. The Eridanus Supervoid is believed to be a massive empty section located in the Eridanus Constellation just south of Orion. However, what makes this discovery so intriguing is that it’s not only the largest structure ever observed in the Universe, but it’s missing about 10,000 galaxies — or around 20 percent less matter than other regions. As a result, the oddity could possibly contain an “alternative reality” within this ominous patch of sky.
In 2004, cosmologists at University of Hawaii observed a span stretching 1.8 billion light-years across and located about 3 billion light-years away (1 light year = 5.88 trillion miles). They identified a large Cold Spot on the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), a map of the radiation left over from the Big Bang, providing a critical tool to study the origin and development of the Universe at cosmic timescales.
The startling revelation presented a perplexing conundrum: the enormity of the cold spot doesn’t align with our current understanding of how the Universe evolved. While it’s not uncommon to find a few small warm and cold patches on the CMB, cold patches of this magnitude are a head-scratching anomaly. According to one report, it’s “too big to exist.”
6. Fermi’s Paradox
In 1942, an Italian-American physicist named Enrico Fermi led an all-star team of scientists to build the world’s first nuclear reactor. This monumental effort was part of the Manhattan Project, a top-secret U.S. government operation that produced the atomic bomb. Afterward, Fermi shifted his attention and extraordinary acumen on solving another complex subject: why haven’t we detected any other alien civilization despite the billions upon billions of other Earth-type planets that most likely exist?
The theory, which came to be known as “Fermi’s Paradox,” posits how the high probability of extraterrestrial life is contradictory to the lack of fact-based, demonstrable evidence supporting it. Naturally, this school of thought discounts the myriad of claims made by people who have allegedly witnessed UFOs or experienced alien encounters — not to mention phenomenons such as Crop Circles and Cargo Cult Theory.
While it’s tough to argue with a genius of Fermi’s stature (especially with our own limited, reptilian brains), we’re left wondering if it’s more frightening that we’re all alone or that hostile life forms are waiting to devour us like a Great White Shark munching seal snacks. Either way, it’s best to keep that aforementioned light on at night.
Many subjects dealing with the cosmos involve an impossible-to-fathom number. A hypernova is one of them. In this instance, the astronomical figure relates to the excessive amount of heat and energy generated from an explosion. But first, let’s review what is known about these fascinating wonders.
Novas are relatively small eruptions that occur in double star systems. When a white dwarf’s gravity pulls material away from a companion star, gas piles up and eventually becomes dense enough to ignite in a spark of nuclear fusion. Next, the Supernova, usually marks the death of a large star and the formation of a neutron star. The heat of a supernova can reach 120 million degrees — a temperature five times that of a nuclear blast.
Finally, a hypernova is an ultra-energetic supernova marking the birth of black holes and the release of intense gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), the most energetic form of light. As the mightiest of the Nova family, hypernovae are 5 to 50 times more energetic than a supernova. Additionally, for sake of completion, “Champagne Supernova“ is a song by the mega pop band Oasis, featuring lyrics of which scientists have yet to decipher the meaning…
4. We’re really, really, really small…
Although mother earth appears to be a gigantic sphere of bottomless oceans and endless roads, we’re relatively puny compared to other planets. How small? In terms of relative scale, Jupiter is 2.5 times larger than all the rest of the planets in the Solar System combined. But if you really want to feel minuscule, look no further than our sun — that big fiery 10,000-degree inferno 93 million miles away.
The Sun’s diameter is 109 times bigger than the rock we call home and is so large that 1,300,000 planet Earths could fit inside of it. While the luminous ball appears to be the largest star in the sky, that’s only because it’s the closest. The #1 star in the universe is the gargantuan UY Scuti, a Red Supergiant with a radius around 1,700 times larger than our sun.
But don’t despair, Earthlings. At least now you know how a ladybug feels, clinging to a thin blade of grass.
3. Rogue Planets
These wandering vagabonds (also known as nomad planets, unbound planets, orphan planets, starless planets, etc.) are objects with enough mass to qualify as planets but orbit a galactic center directly. The Universe, despite its vast expanse, consists of a jam-packed arena of activity that often resembles a well-choreographed dance. But a rogue planet disrupts this flow, stumbling recklessly to the beat of its own rhythmless hum while bumping into other cosmic bodies like a drunken ballerina.
Scientists believe rogue planets may have have been ejected from a previous planetary system or have never been gravitationally bound to another body such as a star. Furthermore, our galaxy (aka the Milky Way) alone may have billions of them.
Interestingly, some rogue planets feature a molten core, which combined with an insulated, cold exterior, could possess subterranean oceans that support life. A team of petrologists from Rice University recently theorized that a rogue planet the size of Mars possibly collided with earth 4.4 billion years ago, and could very well have planted the seeds of life while creating enough debris that later developed into our moon.
2. Space Junk
Ever since the start of the space race, man-made objects have been piling up in what has been politely termed “orbital debris.” But that’s being a little too kind. Let’s just call it what it really is: space junk. A wide range of discarded litter now includes thousands of metal fragments, cameras, spent rocket boosters, and even a complete 1958 U.S. satellite (Vanguard-1) that’s currently the oldest artificial hunk of metal still in orbit.
This overflowing galactic garbage, not unlike our polluted oceans, is rapidly nearing a critical juncture; the consequences could be detrimental for both astronauts and those below running for cover from the falling rubbish. There are currently over 1,700 satellites in operation, yet represents less than 10 percent of debris large enough to track from the ground. An obscene amount of smaller objects could also cause serious damage — and sadly, the number will only to continue to climb.
In just one single action from 2007, China destroyed a decommissioned weather satellite during one of its weapons tests, smashing the object into over 150,000 pieces. However, any attempts to clean up spiraling mess could present even more problems in terms of national security (surveillance equipment) and/or result in conflicts over territorial rights. In short, we’re doomed.
1. Zombie Stars
Just when you think we couldn’t be inundated any more movies, TV shows, and books about bloodsuckers and the undead, the science community has joined the fray with “Zombie Stars.” Really? What’s next brainiacs, a Frankenplanet? Never mind.
As one might guess, a zombie star is something that won’t die. Ever. The monstrous explosion from a supernova typically glows brightly for a while before the dying star is obliterated into space dust. That is unless, for reasons that have yet to be determined, the star manages to avoid death. Adding to the horror show, the zombie star can become a vampire star by sucking fuel and energy from a nearby star to revive itself.
The most famous zombie (for scientists, anyway) is known as iPTF14hls. The star first appeared in 1954 and was thought to have died over a half century ago — but a discovery in 2014 revealed it’s still alive with no plans of retiring. According to the renowned astronomer, Iair Arcavi, a NASA Einstein Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the Las Cumbres Observatory, the star’s inexplicable behavior is the “the biggest puzzle I’ve encountered.”
Yikes. If he’s stumped, folks, all we can do is lock the doors to the space station and hope for the best.