Launchpad Workshop: Day 4 – hypernovae and binaries and black holes, oh my!

Okay, but we’ll get to that.Our morning was spent up in the Vedauwoo area at something between 8000 and 8300 feet (heard conflicting reports on this from locals, will have to nail it down later). I was dithering about whether to go or not, what with the troubles I’ve had acclimating to the low humidity and high altitude of the place, but then finally decided to go anyway and try it and see how I felt when I got up there. They said there were picnic tables and if nothing else it would be pleasant to go and take some interesting photographs and just sit there in the shade of the pines.Turns out Nancy Kress and I both decided, about one third of the way around the loop trail, that we had had enough, and returned to the staging area to wait for the others – we probably did a respectable two miles, counting there and back, but the sun was something fierce and despite the slatherings of sunscreen I didn’t quite trust my Viking-pale skin not to turn on me – and there seemed to be a distinct dearth of oxygen in the air when it came to physical activity. So I took a lot of photos, had a nice walk, and then we all came back to the residence for a round of showers and went off to lunch at a nearby Mexican place.

Jay Lake, Mary Robinette Kowal and I accompanied one of our instructors, Jim, back to the physics building for the set-up to the planetarium show. The planetarium is located in the sub-basement of the physics building, and we were regaled by the stories of the legendary flood when a water main broke up on the fourth floor of the building and naturally all the water pooled in the lowest spot it could – the planetarium. They had a foot of water in there, and it took some heavy-duty rebuilding and refurbishing to get the thing running again… but their star ball is the old-fashioned mechanical kind, a thing of beauty in a sort of technopunk way full of gears and levers, but it is ageing and requires serious maintenance and refurbishment. Several things simply no longer worked – including the possibility to show the phases of the moon on the planetarium dome. Pity, I would have liked to see that.

Then we threw the rest of the official schedule out of the window because we were running very late and Mike Brotherton still had a lot to cover on stellar matters.

We learned about neutron stars, how they form, what they used to be, what they do, how they behave, what they are made of.

We learned about hypernovae, when supermassive red giants 25 times the mass of our sun implode at the core and send out a burst of gamma rays as they collapse from supergiant to black hole in *less than a second*. Now you see it, now you don’t.

We talked about black holes, Schwartzchild’s Radius, the event horizon.

We talked about binary systems and how pairs of stars affect one another. Sufficiently distant binary stars might each have a planetary system, or there might be a supersystem which is orbiting both stars at great distances… or, conceivably, both… This stuff is not only fascinating, it’s starting to MAKE SENSE TO ME which is, in a way, scary. I had a lot of ideas and basic knowledge but much of it was bare-bones or rather shaky – I am learning an incredible amount, but I barely have time to keep up with my notes which are chaotic and terribly disorganised – I will have to sit down and take a good look at everything later and let it settle before I test the new boundaries of my knowledge. But so far I am not only learning a thousand new things every day but I am having a ball doing it.

Tomorrow, we tackle galaxies. And then, in the afternoon, we get to hands-on fiddle with the images they took for us at WIRO last night, making them look like the pretty pictures that we’ve all come to associate with high-power telescope images. And we get to take those pictures home. And we get to tell people, if not that we personally took those photographs, that we were at the very least there when they were being taken.

Tomorrow night, weather permitting, we are going to go up to the roof of the physics building and scope out the heavens with small microscopes. Let’s hope that the clouds that gathered this afternoon sail away by then. But we got so phenomenally lucky up at WIRO when the heavens opened for us to peer inside that I wonder if we’ve used up our share of the goodwill of the gods. Ah, well, we shall see.

Another thing on the agenda tomorrow – a talk on SETI. I am looking forward to that.

You can see the new star-forming regions in the spiral arms…

About Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander's life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website (, her Facebook page (, on Twitter ( or at her Patreon page (


Launchpad Workshop: Day 4 – hypernovae and binaries and black holes, oh my! — 2 Comments

  1. I so enjoy reading your enthousiasm about this.
    My dad is an astronomer and has been very enthousiastic about it, all his life. Even after his formal retirement he kept on working on these ideas and collaborating on articles, as it was his hobby as well as his job.
    Now my nephew is learning astronomy at university.

    I’ve always found their talks about astronomic subjects very interesting, though the maths and a lot of the physics details are way above my comprehension level. The ideas behind all those maths and physics details are fascinating, I find, and it’s joyful to catch that same sense of wonder and exitement from your reports of these workshops.