Armageddon Monument

Look up, and you’ll see the remnants of an incredible cataclysm first seen on Earth in 1054.

| April 2019

A small section of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting Halley's comet in 1066. Photo by Wikimedia Commons/Myrabella.

After the new-star sighting in April 1006, forty-eight years passed during which nothing momentous occurred. Earthly history was spartan. Nobody was inventing things like printing presses. Few explorers were heading out to sea to find new lands. The sky alone offered noteworthy if disconcerting changes. The most-watched, highest-Nielsen-rating worrisome event happened later in the century, in 1066, when Halley’s comet made an unusually bright appearance. A comet was assumed to signify something disastrous coming — in this case, Halley’s comet accompanied the defeat of the English Saxons in the Battle of Hastings.

But a mere dozen years earlier, a far more cataclysmic event had unfolded in the heavens, and it spooked everyone just as thoroughly as the later comet did. On July 4, 1054, a massive blue star weighing as much as ten of our suns used up the last of its nuclear fuel. Its struggle against its own enormous inward-pulling gravity came to an end. Its core no longer pushed outward with enough nuclear oomph to stop its upper layers from collapsing inward. Stars are gaseous, and gas easily compresses, so once it began, the implosion turned into a runaway.

The smaller a star gets, the greater the gravitational pull at its surface; that makes it still smaller, and on and on it goes. This remains nature’s most astonishing vicious circle. It’s certainly the most violent self-amplifying snowball effect in the cosmos.

Anything that falls converts its gravitational potential energy to energy of some other kind like a falling boulder gaining speed and becoming more destructive. In this case, the conversion created ultra-extreme heat. In less than a minute, the star’s new super-high temperature made an unusual kind of nuclear fusion unfold, quite different from the way our sun shines. The entire massive body of the huge but shrinking blue sun ignited. In mere seconds, the star grew a billion times brighter. It had become a supernova, a type 2, and this particular unfortunate star became astronomers’ all-time-favorite hyper-cataclysm.

Two things happened at once during that single minute a millennium ago. First, most of the top gaseous layers of the unfortunate blue sun exploded outward with the total brightness of a billion suns. This destroyed all the planets orbiting it. Simultaneously, the material that had already fallen inward kept going, accelerated by gravity toward the center, until it formed a ball few physicists really believed could exist until it was discovered in 1967.

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