Friday, 18 February 2011

Travelling on the surface of a star

As a follow-up to my last post calculating the distance to the Moon I was asked to calculate the following:

"Here is a question for you Mr Science. How long would it take a plane flyng at approximately 900km per hour across the surface of the biggest known star in our galaxy to travel full circle?"

Good question.  Let's assume that the star is perfectly spherical, which seems reasonable enough.  Now, to find the largest known star in our galaxy.  According to Wikipedia, the largest star in our galaxy is VY Canis Majoris found in the constellation Canis Major (meaning 'large dog').  It's a particularly bright star, which appears faint in the night sky because it's so far away.

VY Canis Majoris has a radius of 1800~2100 solar radii (it's 1800-2100 times wider than the Sun) - the figure varies as the star is surrounded by a nebula, which also makes it difficult to get an exact figure.  Taking 1800 solar radii as a minimum figure, to give us an approximate idea, this means that the star has a radius of:

1 solar radius = 695,500 km
1800 solar radii = 1.251 billion kilometres

Now, the circumference (i.e. the distance around the edge of the star) is 2 π r which gives a circumference of 7.866 billion kilometres.

And that's just the distance around the star's equator...  it's enormous.

Travelling at 900 km per hour, this would take 7.866 billion / 900 = 8.74 million hours.
8.74 million hours = 364,163 Earth days = 997 Earth years (assuming 365.25 days per year).

The exact figure depends on the value of solar radius, the rest is maths, but a round figure would be 1000 years.  Having said that, 900 km/h is not that fast - the speed of sound (Mach 1) is 1193 km/h.  The land speed record is held by Thrust SSC which achieved 1240 km/h in 1997, while Concorde used to reach 2170 km/h.

Still, doubling the speed from 900 km/h to 2170 km/h is only going to reduce the journey time to 500 years... so perhaps the question of time should be put aside.   The real question should be, if you're going to fly or travel on the surface of a star with a temperature of 3000 K, how are you going to keep the pilot flying, and stop him from frying?

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