WR 104: Not The Killer It Used To Be

WR 104. A killer? Not so much.
WR 104. A killer? Not so much.

It’s interesting how astronomical harbingers of doom have the ability to pop up more than once on the ‘net. However, the doom isn’t quite as terrifying when you’ve sat through a conference presentation by a scientist who has exhaustively given every reason as to why this particular killer won’t hurt you.

Enter WR 104.

To be honest, if it wasn’t a Wolf-Rayet star, I probably wouldn’t be writing about it (as we all know, or you should know, Wolf-Rayets are my favourite stellar objects), but this little fact combined with the fact that I know the Earth is no longer on the WR 104 hit-list, I feel compelled to correct an article that has just popped up on the web referencing out-of-date source material.

So, let’s wind this back the clock to January 2009 when I sat in on a very reassuring this-star-isn’t-actually-going-to-kill-us-after-all astro presentation…

Last year, there was some excitement that our Solar System was “looking down the barrel of a gun“. The gun in question was an unstable and violent star called WR 104 and the barrel was the spiralling stellar winds being ejected from the Wolf Rayet star as it orbited around its O-class binary partner (resembling the rifling inside the barrel of a 007-style Walter PPK). Wolf-Rayet stars, apart from being undeniably sexy, signify the final stages of a massive star’s lifetime. Soon after a Wolf-Rayet comes a flash of supernova joy, possibly coupled with some planet-scorching gamma-ray burst action. Of all the places we could be sitting in the Universe, in the line of fire of WR 104 probably isn’t the place I’d choose. In short, that thing could blow at any moment (within a few million years in any case) and a searing column of gamma radiation could fire-hose its way right at us.

Fortunately I was sitting in on a rather upbeat presentation by a Keck Telescope (Hawaii) scientist who was tirelessly researching spectroscopic data from the famous spiral WR 104 observations. I was that captivated by Dr Grant Hill’s talk that I decided to give him a call after the session. (No, I don’t make a habit of stalking scientists and yes, he had left the room before I had time to question him.) From that chat I was able to understand that beyond any reasonable doubt, we were in fact safe from GRB-induced death from WR 104. The binary system is in fact tilted 30-40° away from us. Therefore, even if the Wolf-Rayet did explode, the collimated beam of gamma-rays would miss us by a fair distance. Phew!

So today I see an article (dated April 7th, 2009), with the awesome title, “Is a Death Star Poised for Final Supernova Detonation Aimed at Earth? Astronomers Say “Maybe”.” Either The Daily Galaxy got its facts skewed or WR 104 has been rotated by an unimaginably powerful civilization, but something isn’t right. Where did the reporter get his news from? Unfortunately, the only reference is to an out-of-date Australian news article. In fact, it looks like a clone from the reports that were made back in 2008 when the first images hit the media in a big way along with the title, “OMG She’s Gonna Blow!”

So don’t be concerned about WR 104, I heard it from a guy who hangs out at the telescope that has studied the star intimately that she isn’t pointing our way.

For more, check out WR 104 Won’t Kill Us After All »

2 thoughts on “WR 104: Not The Killer It Used To Be”

  1. Remember writing an news article on this last year. It made the front page, titled “Will this kill us all?” with the barrel-pic and all. Oh, wow, the flood gates to reader feedback hell opened hard. The next few days I had to manage everything from people threatening me with near death threats, to comforting adults calling in crying ’cause they thought tomorrow would be the last day they had with their children.

    The funny thing is that the article was not meant to give the impression of wr104 being a real or plausible threat to mankind, and clearly stated the abysmal chance of anything bad ever happening from this particular place in space.

    This experience truly opened my eyes for how scientific illiterate the reader audience is, and how few of them actually read anything past the headline (I havent tried out any of the doomsday tongue-in-cheek titles since 🙂 )

    But back to the main point of this blog post. I too thought I had warped back in time when i read the The Daily Galaxy today. It was a deja vu of all the articles from a year ago, with no new information. Very strange indeed. Perhaps the writer forgot to date check the source article, and thought this was new?

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