847: Stingray Nebula
Title text: Eärendil will patrol the walls of night only until the sun reaches red giant stage, engulfing the Morning Star on his brow. Light and high beauty are passing things as well.
The Stingray Nebula, in the constellation Ara, is the youngest known planetary nebula in the galaxy. It was formed by an asymptotic giant branch (AGB) B1 supergiant, which blasted out the gas while becoming a white dwarf in 1987. Well, it happened about 18,000 years ago, but the light of the incident reached the Earth in 1987.
This comic went from a reassuring comic about stars at night giving hope in the darkness, but then as with most xkcd's, it took a turn. In this case, the twist is that because Cueball's star he got attached to exploded into a nebula, we should only become attached to stars that aren't quite as volatile as the one that formed the Stingray Nebula.
The title text ties into the Tolkien quote. Eärendil, with a Silmaril strapped to his forehead, is the Tolkeinian myth explanation for the planet Venus. Venus will eventually (in billions of years time) be engulfed by the sun's expansion into a red giant. The source of Sam's comfort is also temporary in the long term.
- [Two white figures are silhouetted against a dark sky. They're sitting on top of a grassy hill.]
- Cueball: I know things are tough right now. When I was going through some difficult times as a kid, I would go up on the roof and look through my telescope.
- Cueball: One day I found a tiny star in Ara that seemed friendly.
- Cueball: There were millions like it, but I decided that this one was mine.
- Cueball: When things got bad, I'd go find that star, and think of my favorite Tolkien quote. It's from Sam's time in Mordor.
- [The next panel is diagonally downward to the right of the previous. The upper left corner overlaps.]
- [A star is above the highest peak in a chain of mountains.]
- "There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the shadow was only a small and passing thing: There was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach."
- —The Return of the King
- Companion: That's comforting!
- Cueball: It was rather undercut in 1987, when the light from my star's explosion reached Earth. The debris forms the Stingray Nebula.
- Companion: There's probably a lesson there.
- Cueball: "Never trust an unstable asymptotic giant branch star. Stick with main sequences and dwarfs."
- Companion: I'll, uh, keep that in mind.
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