Suppose there's a star out there that's a lot more massive than the Sun.

Suppose further that orbiting this star is a planet not unlike Earth. Water, oxygen, civilization, and all.

Now the star decides to go supernova. How quick, or slow, is the process?

How long will it take it to heat up to make life on that planet impossible? A month? A year? A hundred years? A thousand years?

And how long will it take for the supernova to engulf the planet? A day? A month? A year? A million years?

  • $\begingroup$ It is worth noting that if the star is more massive than the earth, big enough to go supernova, then it doesn't live for very long, not long enough for civilisation to have developed. Also it would be at the end of its life, so would have expanded into a red giant (or may be pulsing through luminous blue variable stage) either way, it will have become even more powerful than it was when younger, and would have already have torched any planets that may have been in its habitable zone. $\endgroup$
    – James K
    Dec 18, 2015 at 22:27
  • $\begingroup$ @JamesKilfiger: Thank you. Hmm. Civilization as we know it develops in a blink by astronomical standards. Doesn't it? What's a few thousand years. $\endgroup$
    – Ricky
    Dec 19, 2015 at 0:00
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    $\begingroup$ @JamesKilfiger So we infer that the civilisation did not originate there... $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Dec 19, 2015 at 0:18
  • $\begingroup$ It only took 1000,000 years for stone-tool making apes to form civillisations (and then only a few thousand to develop the means to destroy themselves). But it took nearly 4 billion years for self-replicating strands of DNA to evolve stone-tool making apes. A large star shines for as little as 10 million years before going supernova, and the red giant phase for much less than that. A colony of space-faring aliens could have been built on a planet orbiting a star that is a potential supernova precursor, but not a native civilisation. They would find the planet a pretty hostile place. $\endgroup$
    – James K
    Dec 19, 2015 at 9:31

1 Answer 1


Ricky, it is very rapid. The core collapse and initial neutrino burst takes seconds to tens of seconds. We don't normally think about neutrino interactions, but so many are released that even this might be a problem for a nearby habitable planet. It then takes a few hours for the shockwave from the core collapse and bounce to make it out to the surface, accompanied by an intense flash of UV light that would likely sterilise anything in its planetary system. The outer layers of the exploding star are hurled out at around 1000 km/s, so could travel an astronomical unit in a day or so.

The supernova continues to become more luminous for about a week thereafter, increasing in luminosity, from what must have already been enormous (thousands of solar luminosities) by another factor of $10^5$. The equilibrium temperature of any planet scales roughly as $L^{1/4}$, so temperatures would rise by more than an order of magnitude in a week.

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    $\begingroup$ As far as how close you have to be for the neutrinos alone to be deadly, there's always this: what-if.xkcd.com/73 . $\endgroup$ Dec 19, 2015 at 0:51

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