From a “mere” 93 million miles away we’re able to view the surface of our home star the Sun very well with telescopes on Earth and in space…you can even observe large sunspots with your unaided eye (with proper protection, of course.) But the surface details of other stars tens, hundreds, or thousands of light-years away can’t be so easily resolved from Earth. The details are just too fine and get lost in the brilliance of the stars themselves.
But astronomers have now produced the best image yet of the surface of another star beyond our Solar System. Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer, located on a high plateau in Chile’s Atacama Desert where the sky is some of the clearest and driest in the world, a team of scientists have mapped the movement of material in the atmosphere of Antares, a red supergiant star 700 times the size of our Sun that shines brightly in the heart of the constellation Scorpius. The observations enabled them to determine how material moves through Antares’ atmosphere and then construct an image of the star itself—the most accurate representation of another star besides the Sun.
This past Tuesday, October 28, at 6:22 p.m. EDT, an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket lifted off from the shorefront pad at NASA’s Wallops Space Flight Facility in Virginia, the Cygnus vehicle inside its fairing . The third of eight planned launches in Orbital Sciences’ $1.9-billion NASA contract, the Orb-3 mission was to deliver over 5,000 lbs of cargo to the International Space Station after a beautiful nighttime launch that would be visible to viewers up and down the U.S. East Coast.
Except, as you probably know by now, that’s not at all what happened.
Just six seconds after ignition and liftoff from the pad, a series of explosions ran through the Antares rocket. Ablaze, the 133-foot-tall stack stopped in midair and then fell back onto the pad in a fiery smear, where it and its contents of fuels and cargo detonated in an enormous explosion. It was incredible, it was catastrophic, it was awful.