• Reading Level 5

Scientists baffled as monster star vanishes

Are you literally a star? It is a fact that humans are made of stardust. Nearly all the elements in our bodies were made in a star – and will eventually be returned to a “cosmic ash heap”. Over 70-million light years away, a giant star in the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy has gone missing. The monster star – known as a luminous blue variable (LBV) – had been studied by scientists for years, only to disappear suddenly without a trace. As one shocked magazine headline said: “Stars are not supposed to go out like this.” The observations were made by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in the Chilean desert. “We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night,” says Jose Groh, a Trinity College Dublin astrophysicist involved in the study. It could mean that the giant star skipped the normal process of exploding into a supernova, instead immediately becoming a black hole. Andrew Allan, leading the study, said, “If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner.” Like all the elements in the Universe – our Sun and planet included – massive stars eventually fade to dust. Almost every element in the Universe was created inside a large star so hot and heavy that it fuses its own atoms into something new. When these stars die, these elements are released into the emptiness of space, often landing on planets where they sometimes react, accumulating into new structures. The first life on Earth was originally just one such lucky arrangement of celestial specks. “Nearly all the elements in the human body were made in a star and many have come through several supernovas,” says planetary scientist Dr Ashley King. “We have stuff in us as old as the Universe,” says astrophysicist Karel Schrijver. The main difference between humans and most other matter is that we are conscious beings, able to appreciate the Universe – we assume the same cannot be said about a grain of sand. Nonetheless, the idea that one arrangement of space dust can be self-aware, and another not, is hard to prove. For some philosophers, one solution to this hard problem of consciousness is panpsychism – accepting that everything in the Universe has an internal state and, possibly, feeling. So, are we literally stars? Cosmic soup Yes. We are made of the same stuff as stars and so is everything else in the Universe. This dizzying thought can be seen as something beautiful. There is no tension between our existence as curious and confused beings and our place in a complex and often surprising world. We are truly part of the cosmos. We owe everything to the very same objects that light and heat our world. That feels right. Then again, the fact we are conscious does feel exceptional. The belief that all matter has an internal, feeling state is just too hard to accept. Though our building blocks might be shared with the rest of the Universe, there is something special in their arrangement. This has given us something different – even more special than being at one with the cosmos: being able to admire it. KeywordsLight years - A unit of measurement equal to the distance that light travels in one year, which is 9.4607 times 1012 km. That's nearly 6 million million miles!

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