by Gene Callahan and Stu Morgenstern
NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has captured a rare glimpse of one of the most violent events in nature – the self-destruction of a mega-star. Chandra’s newest image gives astrophysicists a better understanding of the dynamics of the explosion, and clues to the behavior of the doomed star in the years before her sad denouement.
“Cassiopeia A had been a star for as long as anyone can remember – a bright light in our firmament,” eulogized astronomer Hubert Dinglebottom.
Cass's career reflected the troubled times in which she lived. After joining the fusion group NGC666 when still just a protostar in 1,435,129,827 BC, Cass had long been the most prominent star in the group, composing many of their early hits such as “We Look Like a Figure from Greek Mythology” and the cult classic, “Don’t Give Me No Hand-Me-Down Helium.”
NGC666 first caught the eye of astro-promoter Jim Smith in the early 1980’s, when blue-white giants were all the rage in the London astrophysical scene. He propelled the group to the zenith of their success, pushing them to the top of The International Astrophysical Society’s “Top 100 Extraterrestrial Objects” charts, and garnering them airplay on radio telescopes around the world.
By the early 1990’s, Cass was falling deeper into chemical excesses. “She was burning through hydrogen like there was no tomorrow,” said group member Cassiopeia B. An arrest and conviction in late 1996 prompted doubts about her availability for NGC666’s Northern Hemisphere tour. In the succeeding months she contributed less and less to the star cluster’s brilliance. She became increasingly jealous of Cassiopeia C’s leading role in the group. Cassiopeia F’s wooing and capturing of Cass’ fourth planet merely increased the tension. To make matters worse, industry rag Sky and Telescope published photographs of her in the gravitational embrace of an underage white dwarf. Events reached a crisis point in June 1997 when Cass officially left the cluster.
After Cass left, the tug of the black hole of depression into which she was spiraling only strengthened. Her health continued to give her problems, as she was suffering from both severe sunspots and cirrhosis of the corona. Her mental health also deteriorated: “Sure, some stars can become temporarily unstable and pulsate as RR Lyrae variables. But Cass, she was just off the wall all the time,” astronomer Hal Lightfoot told us.
She also made a series of bad career moves. She had begun moonlighting – always a horrible idea for a star – and her regular work was suffering. Comments one wag, “Due to her failing health, her solar wind had become damn near unbearable.”
She had a brief flirtation with the heavy metal scene around this period. “She had begun hanging around with a bunch of gas giants,” says British astro-critic John Feldergast. “Orbiting her like the sun shone from her ass, they were.”
By this point, Cass was composed almost entirely of degenerate matter – just a rapidly-spinning, compressed remnant of a former star. Finally, her tired, burned-out body exploded. The official cause of death was hydrogen exhaustion, but friends say that Cass had just had it with stardom.
February 10, 2001