What's the Sun done for me, lately?
November 23, 2011 8:40 PM   Subscribe

So let's say we wanted to blow up the sun...

For a sci fi story's purpose, let's pretend you had some item of infinite power that allowed you to alter the Sun in some way, without actually introducing any new material to the sun itself (ex: a nuclear bomb) with the end goal of causing it to explode or implode.

For example, using your magically powerful object, you might increase or decrease the amounts some element THAT ALREADY EXISTS within the sun-- be it Hydrogen, Helium, etc. Another example: you could somehow upset the balance of reactions going on within the sun, to trigger an explosion.

(The artifact's power is pretty vague, but it can increase pressure and heat for sure.)

Can you give me a (somewhat) plausible way to theoretically blow up the sun, with these rather silly restrictions?

posted by egeanin to Science & Nature (34 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Charles Stross' book Iron Sunrise describes, in some detail, how one might blow up a star with a relativity gadget that causes time in some enclosed spherical space to pass much more quickly than in the outside world. The basic idea is that you enclose the stellar core in this field and let a trillion years pass internally, so the fusion process burns its way down to iron, then you release the field. The remaining stellar material will collapse onto the core, fuse, and explode.
posted by Mars Saxman at 8:46 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm sure someone will correct me, but I believe there are heavy, fissionable elements in the sun. If you collect them all into a critical mass, boom.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:48 PM on November 23, 2011

The sun is kind of already blowing up. That's kind of what it is. It's a giant, self-sustaining fusion bomb.

There's not enough mass for it to supernova, but it will become a red giant once most of the hydrogen is fused into helium. It's not an explosion, but it'll expand until it swallows the earth.
posted by empath at 8:59 PM on November 23, 2011 [5 favorites]

The toughest part about blowing up the sun is that the sun already is a nuclear explosion.

I think the most plausible thing would be to look into the circumstances which cause a star to go supernova and see if the power you have can create that situation.
posted by auto-correct at 9:01 PM on November 23, 2011

You create a wormhole in the core of the sun to siphon off a critical portion, possibly to an alternate universe.

posted by zachawry at 9:04 PM on November 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

Actually, the sun will have a helium flash at some point before it goes into a red giant stage, and that's fairly explosive.
posted by empath at 9:05 PM on November 23, 2011

I believe there are heavy, fissionable elements in the sun. If you collect them all into a critical mass, boom.

No doubt there are heavy metals in the sun, but the first Google result suggests only 0.27% of an Earth mass. Again, according to Google, that's 1.613034 × 1022 kilograms. Not an insignificant amount, to be sure, but it's in the middle of a fusion bomb already. What's it gonna do, ignite a fusion explosion?

Wikipedia suggests that splitting a uranium atom releases 180MeV, 93% as kinetic energy, so (calculate, calculate, calculate, IANAP) so I think that's 1.95456185 × 1012 joules. Is that a lot? Divide by solar mass and you get 9.82725221 × 10-19 m2 / s2.

I'm not sure, but I think that's a very small effect on the sun.
posted by spacewrench at 9:09 PM on November 23, 2011

Best answer: I'm sure someone will correct me, but I believe there are heavy, fissionable elements in the sun. If you collect them all into a critical mass, boom.

Sorry, no for two reasons.

First, there aren't, really.
Second, by comparison to the energy levels which the sun operates at, fission explosions are firecrackers.

A 15-kiloton bomb, like the one used at Hiroshima, represents the conversion of about 0.7 gram of mass into energy.

A 50 megaton bomb is about 2.3 kilograms converted to energy.

The total energy output of the sun is 3*10^31 joules per day, which represents the conversion of 3340 trillion kilograms of mass into energy.

If you want the sun to blow up, you need to drastically increase that, at least for a brief period. The sun converts about 3 billion kilograms of mass into energy each second. If you could multiply that by 100 it would surely have an effect.

So what your McGuffin beam does is to flip matter into antimatter. It's a big, wide beam and operates continuously, and in a pretty short time the sun goes kaboom.

Probably that violates some esoteric conservation rules in quantum chromodynamics, but who cares?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:12 PM on November 23, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think the easiest answer is just to convert all the hydrogen into helium.
posted by empath at 9:12 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oops, that shoulda been "MacGuffin".

Also, for anyone who wants to check my math, here are the constants.

A "kiloton of TNT" in energy terms is 4,184,000,000,000 joules.

A gram of mass converts into 89,875,517,870,000 joules.

The energy output of the sun is 3*10^31 joules per day.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:21 PM on November 23, 2011

The idea would not be the fission of iron, but fusion. The amounts of energy released from the Iron already present in the sun would be meaningful and unhappy for us ~8 minutes later.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:24 PM on November 23, 2011

Ah, rats; I read one of my results wrong. The daily energy output of the sun is equivalent of 3.34*10^17 grams of mass converted. So is 334 trillion kilograms of mass, not 3340 trillion kilograms of mass.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:26 PM on November 23, 2011

Blasdelb, both fission and fusion of iron are endothermic. Iron is the low point on the energy curve.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:28 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's no enough mass in the sun to fuse iron.
posted by empath at 9:29 PM on November 23, 2011

Will a supernova do? Your super device could increase the amount of iron, which consumes energy instead of releasing it when it fuses because its nucleus is so tightly bound, and wont undergo fission for the same reason, so a huge ball of non-reacting iron accumulates at the core until it gets big enough and collapses, exploding the outside of the star in one of the most energetic events in the universe.
posted by cmoj at 9:29 PM on November 23, 2011

Oh... the Sun. Yeah, not massive enough. Still, if you could inject a ball of iron like 1.5 times the mass of the sun into its core... that'd do it.
posted by cmoj at 9:31 PM on November 23, 2011


The collision of [equal amounts of] matter and antimatter causes both to be transformed completely into energy. In contrast (as I understand it), fission and fusion reactions only transform infinitesimal amounts of the starting mass into energy. Most of the matter stays matter, albeit in another form.

You'll still need a ton of antimatter to blow up the sun, though. Well, probably a lot more than a ton. Anyone care to calculate?
posted by dephlogisticated at 10:10 PM on November 23, 2011

At least one theory of fusion reactions involves a electron positron annihilation. The sun cooks off about 800,000 tons of matter every second. (Or so said an astronomy professor I had when Reagan was President.) Assuming I'm remembering this correctly and we still believe it to be true, you'd need a shitload of antimatter to get a really noticeable effect.

If you want to screw with the sun and you have all kinds of cool superscience gizmos to do it with, turn the gravity in the sun way up to get everything good and hot, and then turn that effect off real suddenly like. It'd be just like the giant ball of iron without the menial "get a giant ball of iron" part.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:57 PM on November 23, 2011

Best answer: One of the little bits of trivia I've always loved is how, due to general relativity effects and the sun's gravity, there is more space in and around the Sun than there should be. I.e., if you were to imagine a cube centered on the Sun measuring 200 million kilometers on a side, whereas out in flat Euclidean interstellar space the cube would contain (2 × 10⁸ km)3 = 8 × 10²⁴ km³ - 8 septillion cubic kilometers, the similar region encompassing the Sun (and in particular the gravity well produced by the Sun's mass) contains more space than that. This effect of 3D space being stretched and deformed lead to one of Einstein's predictions based on GR, the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, which when it was confirmed astronomically a few years after the publication of Die Feldgleichungen der Gravitation was a resounding confirmation of the theory.

So here's my pitch: The weapon would be called a "spatial deflexor" and it would counteract the aforementioned GR effects and reduce the volume of space around the Sun to the equivalent of a geometrically flat region like interstellar space (it could be explained that the weapon functions by reducing or eliding the Sun's mass somehow or maybe by altering the components of the metric tensor of spacetime). A snap change like this momentarily causes the superheated solar material to be compressed and heated to an even greater extent than Sol normal which is enough to result in an event similar to the core collapse of a supernova.

(I don't know if the difference in volume would actually be enough to cause anything like a supernova, but I figure that you as the writer are the one getting the big bucks to do that research and tweak the design and theory behind the weapon as needed...)
posted by XMLicious at 12:31 AM on November 24, 2011

Best answer: The sun is already exploding quite nicely by itself, but gravity is holding it together. If you have some sort of gravity neutrallizing field (originally designed for lifting ships off planets, for example) , all you need to do is project it around the entire star for a short while. Much of the mass off the star will fly off in short order.

I imagine that the star will eventually reconstitute itself as the thrown off matter falls back into the vicinity of whatever is left. But that might take hundreds of years, and the solar system would be a very different place afterwards.
posted by AndrewStephens at 12:33 AM on November 24, 2011

For what it's worth, iron nuclei are a minimal-energy configuration. You can get energy from splitting nuclei heavier than iron, or fusing nuclei lighter than iron, but fusing or splitting iron itself is always going to cost energy, not deliver it.
posted by flabdablet at 12:34 AM on November 24, 2011

Best answer: Hmm, interesting question.

As other respondents have said, the sun is already in the process of blowing up. It is a huge massive explosion already. The only way you would "blow up" the sun is to somehow increase the rate at which it's fusing hydrogen (or yeah, introduce antimatter as one person suggested).
The way stars work is that in the core of the sun, the high temperature and pressure cause hydrogen nuclei to combine to form helium[1], releasing energy in the process. If you wanted to increase the rate that this is happening, you somehow have to increase either the pressure or the temperature - actually, you needn't necessarily do this at the core - if you could somehow increase either the pressure or temperature of any part of the sun sufficiently you would end up kicking off fusion. This is at least partially self defeating however - a big fusion explosion in any part of the sun will decrease the pressure at that point to the point where fusion stops so you'd have to find some way of sustaining the temperature/pressure.

Alternatively, seeding the sun with large amounts (and I do mean LARGE AMOUNTS) of either deuterium, tritium (basically hydrogen with extra neutrons) or possibly some isotopes of lithium may increase the amount of fusion occuring - all of these elements fuse at a lower temperate/pressure than is necessary at the core, and could, in theory be partially synthethised from stuff already occuring in the sun[2]. This has it's downsides however - if you just chuck a load of these atoms into the surface of the sun, you'd probably have to wait decades for any effect to be seen because the elements would have to move via convection currents slowly towards the core where the fusion is going on.

[1] at least, for stars in the main stage. The hydrogen -> helium conversion is the most energy rich. helium -> carbon fusion produces much less energy collision per collision.
[2] I think this would end up as a zero sum game, you'd use just as much energy creating the isotopes as you'd get by adding them back to the sun.
posted by BigCalm at 3:53 AM on November 24, 2011

Damn, I came in here to suggested a time machine. I've even read Iron Sunrise, but didn't remember it from there.
posted by DU at 4:44 AM on November 24, 2011

If the artifact can control temperature, why not just freeze the sun. If the core of the sun was reduced in temperature to absolute zero - the thermal process would stop.
posted by Flood at 4:56 AM on November 24, 2011

Open a wormhole, one end in the sun, one end in empty space and expel its contents.
Open a wormhole, one end in the sun, the other near the event horizon of a black hole.
Open a wormhole, one end in the sun, the other end inside a neutron star, fill'er up!

Wormholes: is there anything they can't do?
posted by blue_beetle at 5:28 AM on November 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well, first, you get yourself a Stargate...
posted by Thorzdad at 5:50 AM on November 24, 2011 [2 favorites]

Antimatter solutions involve introducing materials (antimatter) to the sun, so they're out. I think AndrewStephens' idea of turning off gravity (or making gravity repel instead of attract) is probably your simplest solution. Without gravity holding it together, the Sun would just turn into a giant cold gas cloud.
posted by Jairus at 8:59 AM on November 24, 2011

If we can dick around with fundamentals, simply increase the permittivity of free space in the core, which would drop the Coulomb Barrier, which is the electrostatic barrier to fusion. Electrostatic force shoves atoms apart, you have to exceed that energy to get the nuclei close enough to fuse.

Dropping that electrostatic force would dramatically increase the rate off fusion and significantly increase the energy release.
posted by eriko at 9:10 AM on November 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The probability of fusion per collision of two protons in our sun is in the range of ~10^−30.

Use your Sci Fi device to turn that probability to one and sit back and watch the sun explode.
posted by metex at 12:15 PM on November 24, 2011

What about syphoning off a bunch of mass from the core of the sun, reducing the density such that fusion is no longer sustainable. (Turning it into a red giant, I think.) This isn't exactly the same as blowing it up, but it would turn it into a pretty crappy sun for us humans, I think. (For one thing, I think it would expand and swallow the Earth, but you can take some liberties there.)

Another idea: you have a device that generates a massive magnetic field. Since plasmas are electrically charged, you can influence them using this magnetic field. So maybe you surround the sun with a magnetic field, compressing it such that fusion becomes significantly faster.

Someone upthread mentioned the idea of tweaking the physical constants. (Like if you have a formula a = 4*b, instead of 4, your device turns that 4 into a 400! Muahahaha!) This is a cool idea, and might even appeal to playful physicists who don't take themselves too seriously.
posted by !Jim at 2:49 PM on November 24, 2011

I think the best method with the least amount of handwavium would be to either catalyse [possibly by injecting muons] or poison the fusion reaction in the stellar core.

Both options would result in much faster, potentially catastrophic reaction rates.

The case of catalysis is obvious, the case of poisoning rather counter intuitive. Poisoning at sufficient levels would induce gravitational collapse of the star, resulting in a supernova-type explosion as the heavier elements were compressed to ignition temperature over very short timescales.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 8:19 PM on November 24, 2011

Best answer: There's tremendous amounts of energy in the magnetic fields dancing about in and around the surface of the sun. Filaments of these fields are among the largest structures in the solar system. Let's say that your magical mystery machine has the ability to twist and turn these at will. So you can condense and focus that energy into some sort of shield that can contain, say, a large coronal mass ejection, and rebound it back upon itself into the sun. Let's also say that this could start to resonate eject-contract-eject-contract, each time pulling in a little more of the energy from the neighboring corona, setting up a positive feedback loop growing and growing in effect. Let's then say that this resonance starts waves of high-pressure seismic compression waves inside the sun that travel to the core -- when they reach the critical point that holds the threshold level of energy for fusion to occur, they make the fusion happen in an unbalanced way, adding momentarily to the suns output, which again causes a rebounding seismic wave to head to the surface, then reflect back to the center (but amplified on it's return by the magnetic shell resonance you've set up on the surface), again doing the compressive thing that increases fusion and energy release. Each trip causes more resonance, and the feedback cycle grows and grows over a few weeks or days or hours and blows the hole thing up.

To me, the nice part of this is that it lets the sun do most of the work. Lot's of reasons why this wouldn't work, but in the absence of rigorous scientific analysis, it sounds good to me.
posted by buzzv at 9:27 PM on November 24, 2011

Response by poster: These are all marvelous answers. Thank you!!
posted by egeanin at 9:49 PM on November 25, 2011

I like the idea of directing a coronal injection by screwing with magnetic fields. It's catastrophic for the earth, but not necessarily 'blowing up the sun'
posted by empath at 10:11 PM on November 25, 2011

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