It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … Superman’s home star! Astronomers call it LHS 2520, but thanks to astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s collaboration with DC Comics, it’s getting top billing this week as Rao, the sun to Superman’s native planet, Krypton.
Tyson, director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, saw a chance to infuse fantasy with real science when DC approached him about featuring the planetarium in its latest Superman storyline. Out this week in Superman Action Comics No. 14, “Star Light, Star Bright” tells of the caped superhero witnessing the destruction of his beloved home.
Or, as Tyson points out, watching it many years after the fact, since light from celestial objects takes time to travel and reach our eyes.
That was the first clue Tyson had in locating a suitable star system for Krypton. Decked out in the gold sun-and-moon vest that he wears in the comic book, Tyson explained to reporters on Thursday how Superman must have traveled to Earth faster than the speed of light—and through a wormhole—since he arrived on Earth the same age he was when he escaped the disintegrating Krypton. (Remember the infant Kal-El bundled, Moses-like, in his spaceship?)
Figuring that the handsome Clark Kent is now in his strapping 20s, Tyson combed a catalogue of nearby stars and found one some 27 light years away. Not only did the star’s age fit, but it’s also red—the color of Superman’s native Rao.
DC liked the choice of LHS 2520 for yet another reason: It resides in the constellation Corvus, meaning “crow” or “raven” in Latin. Turns out a crow is the mascot for Smallville High, where young Kent and his cronies went to school.
”What more could you want in how this works out?” Tyson exclaimed.
The next challenge was figuring out how Superman could possibly see Krypton from Earth’s Hayden Planetarium. Seeing a star as dim as LHS 2520 is tough enough, let alone a theoretical planet in its orbit. Planets get lost in the glare of their host stars, Tyson said. “It’s like looking at a Hollywood spotlight and trying to spot a firefly.”
So he suggested a technique called interferometry, where astronomers use multiple small telescopes together to achieve the resolution of a much larger one. “You’d need a single telescope the width of the Earth to see Krypton,” Tyson noted.
But even an array of smaller telescopes would require a supercomputer capable of processing and pulling together all the data—something beyond the reach of current technology for a theoretical Krypton.
DC incorporated interferometry into the storyline, with Superman stepping in as the super-processor to enable the climactic viewing from New York City, aka Metropolis.
“I’m a native of Metropolis, and he’s saved Metropolis a few times,” Tyson quipped. “So one thing we could do is help Superman.”
As for his passion for getting real science into the superhero world, Tyson remarked, “There’s so much science, especially in astrophysics, that allows you to be creative. The universe is not just weirder than we imagine; it’s weirder than we could imagine it. So why not mine it?”