Hayden Planetarium Director Neil Tyson Assembles Scientific Foundation for New Superman Comic
by AMNH on
The superhero, it turns out, comes once a year to see images of his far-off home planet, Krypton, said to orbit its home-star every 382 days. To locate the fictional planet in the actual sky, DC Comics worked with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Museum’s Hayden Planetarium. “When an artist’s muse leads to scientific themes,” says Tyson, “we are there to help out.” Tyson elaborates on the process in this video.
FIRST TASK: TYSON DETERMINES KRYPTON ORBITED STAR LHS 2520 IN CORVUS CONSTELLATION
Tyson’s first task was to figure out where the planet Krypton would be located in the galaxy. Using the facts of Superman’s fictional life—such as his age, about 27—Tyson studied published catalogs of known stars to determine a few possible candidates about 27 light years from Earth, around which Krypton might orbit.
After hearing about the candidates, DC Comics homed in on one—a star known as LHS 2520—because it was within the night-sky constellation Corvus, which is Latin for crow. As Superman aficionados know, the mascot of Smallville High School—which Clark Kent attends growing up—is the Crow.
Back on Earth, astronomers don’t know whether LHS 2520 has any planets orbiting it. But over the past two decades, many astronomers have discovered planets orbiting stars other than our Sun. Though only a small portion of the sky has been surveyed so far, about 800 of these exoplanents have already been discovered, with thousands more observed but not yet confirmed.
Still, distant stars like LHS 2520 are not easily observed; in fact, no telescope today is strong enough to see details of planets as far off as the fictional Krypton would be. To actually see a planet 27 light years away, says Tyson, a telescope “would have to be the width of the Earth!”
Instead, today, exoplanet researchers mostly observe exoplanets indirectly, by watching the effects of a planet’s gravity on the star, or the tiny eclipses that occur as planets “transit,” or cross, a star.
But astrophysicists can combine the powers of telescopes placed at a distance from one another to amplify their powers of observation. Called interferometry, this method, for now, utilizes small telescopes, not powerful enough to observe far-off Krypton-like exoplanets.
SECOND TASK: TYSON DEVISES PLAUSIBLE METHOD BY WHICH SUPERMAN CAN SEE HIS FAR-OFF HOME
To make the comic’s key plot point—Superman observing his home planet’s destruction—scientifically plausible, Tyson combined fact with fiction. In the comic, every actual visible-light telescope on Earth observes Krypton at the same moment, in effect creating a massive interferometer—a feat only possible in comics.
Sadly for Superman, this amazing technology allows him to observe the long-ago explosion of his home planet, the light from which has taken 27 years to reach Earth. “The Planet Krypton has been gone for years,” reads the comic. “But as far as Superman is concerned—Tonight is the night Krypton died.”
Interested in exoplanets?
With about 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, there may turn out to be trillions of exoplanets. Learn more about Museum scientist Rebecca Oppenheimer's pioneering work in exoplanet detection.
Take a grand tour of the Universe, on Tuesday, November 27, in the Dome of the Hayden Planetarium Space Theater. Using the Museum's Digital Universe Atlas, Brian Abbot will lead you away from Earth, out of the solar system, to exoplanets—and beyond. Purchase tickets here.