It wasn’t a bird. It wasn’t a plane. It was a super something, though what kind of thing is still quite literally up in the air.
“Pretty much everything about its emission is something we haven’t seen before,” said Iair Arcavi, a physicist at the University of California.
“Cow,” as astronomers are calling it, was a massively bright explosion 200 million light years away. Stephen Smartt, an astronomer at Queen’s University in the U.K., was the first to notice the explosion.
“It popped up out of nowhere,” he said. At first, he thought it was a run-of-the-mill stellar flare in our galaxy, until he realized it was much farther away. That meant it was unusually bright. “It was 11 o’clock on a Sunday night, and I said to myself, ‘I better tell everybody about this’,” Smartt continued. He sent out an alert, and the astronomy world took notice.
“Everybody put down what they were doing up to that point,” explained Daniel Perley, a scientist at Liverpool John Moores University in the U.K. Smartt named the explosion following an alphabetical protocol that, by weird chance, spit out AT2018cow, or “Cow” if you’re an astronomer who likes nicknames.
Cow looked like a supernova — a giant star ending its life with an explosion. Except Cow was between 10 and 100 times brighter than a regular supernova. And most of the time, supernovae slowly amp up to the explosion. But Cow was different. Cow came out of nowhere and took only a few days to reach maximum brightness.
All that meant Cow was something out of the ordinary. It could have been a neutron star being born, or a black hole getting created, or something else entirely. Scientists hope this rare chance to see such a massive star exploding will help us understand the kinds of cosmic events that birthed our own world.
The materials our planet is made of came from giant star explosions, yet we still know very little about them. In understanding these epic origins, we may come to understand more about Earth and our own origins. Massive stars are our grandparents, and the Earth is our parent. Perhaps appreciating and learning more about this lineage will help us to marvel at and respect both the cosmic ancestors in the sky and the one under our feet.