Space Expert: Obama Didn’t End NASA

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about the space program and the planet Krypton.

Neil deGrasse Tyson (Hillary Crosley/The Root)
Neil deGrasse Tyson (Hillary Crosley/The Root)

(The Root) — There are only a handful of experts who can discuss stars and galaxies in a way that lay people can easily understand. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of them. As the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York’s American Museum of Natural History, Tyson recently received the honor of becoming a character in the Superman comic book series.

In the newest edition, Star Light, Star Bright, which hit shelves this month, Tyson and his Hayden staff locate Superman’s home planet of Krypton and (spoiler alert) give the hero a chance to see it as it explodes. And while the sad story is fictional, Tyson and his colleagues assigned Superman an actual star, called LHS2520. “The universe is not only weirder than we’ve ever imagined; it might be weirder than we can imagine,” Tyson told The Root, paraphrasing geneticist J.B.S. Haldane. “So why not mine it for the frontier of our imagination?”

Recently, The Root and a group of media outlets met Tyson in a library inside the planetarium, where he shared his Superman connection, how he discovered a fictitious planet and what he hopes President Obama’s second term will mean for NASA.

The Root: What happens in Star Light, Star Bright?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: The comic begins with Superman on Mars fighting foes. He comes back to Earth because he remembers that it’s his time to visit the Hayden Planetarium. Every 382 days he comes there to look at Krypton. But this time was different because he knew that it would be destroyed.

[In the comic], the world’s telescopes are aligned, and we see Superman staring down into the computer looking very focused. He’s using his superpowers to assemble the data. Then the image comes into focus and we see the final destruction of Krypton. The very last panel is Superman looking melancholy. I got misty-eyed reading this. The universe is revealing to him what he already knew.

TR: How did you locate Superman’s fictitious home planet of Krypton?

NDT: In astrophysics, we have a branch called interferometry, [which says] you want the biggest telescope you can bring to bear on your object. A bigger telescope collects more light, allowing you to see dimmer things. You can’t make a telescope big enough to see the detail on Krypton so we do something clever and use an interferometer.

An interferometer is [like saying], I want a telescope this big, but “this” is 100 miles and I can’t make a telescope that’s 100 miles in diameter. But if I’m clever I can put [a number of telescopes across the same distance] at the same time and track the data with such detail that I can combine these sets of data and have the resolution as if the telescope were actually the size [of all of them together]. That’s one aspect of interferometry that we use all the time in astrophysics with radio waves.