On Ariana Grande’s new album, among the kinds of titles you’d expect from an ultra-successful pop star singing about the highs and lows of love—“needy” or “ghostin”— there’s this single, all-caps track: “NASA.”
Yes, one of Grande’s new songs is named for the U.S. government agency that runs the space program.
For Grande, the song is another catchy tune about self-empowerment in romantic relationships. For NASA, it’s free publicity; the agency tweeted a cheesy message at Grande on Friday, complete with a link to its own website. For music writers, such as my colleague Spencer Kornhaber, it’s a chance to celebrate a “top-tier bop.” For The Atlantic’s science desk, it is an opportunity to get nerdy about the astronomical facts alluded to in the lyrics.
The song opens with a reimagining of Neil Armstrong’s famous line: “This is one small step for woman / One giant leap for womankind.” The intro segues into an addictive jam sprinkled with outer-space buzzwords: Stars, orbit, gravity.
“You know I’m a star / Space, I’ma need space,” the chorus goes. Grande insists to her paramour that she needs some time apart because she needs some “me” time. She imagines herself as a star, and also “the universe / and you’ll be N-A-S-A.” (We’ll leave the sleuthing about which ex-boyfriend NASA represents to someone else.)
As far as pop-song metaphors go, this is a pretty good one.
The universe is vast. The distances between stars are so tremendous that they are measured not in measly units like miles or kilometers, but by how fast light can cross them. If Grande needs some space from a partner, she’ll find it here.
The closest stars to our own orbit are in a trio known as Alpha Centauri, located about four light-years away. It is considered “close” only on cosmic scales. How long would it take us to reach Alpha Centauri? Kurtis Williams, an astronomy and astrophysics professor at Texas A&M University, worked out the math. Light travels at about 186,000 miles per second. Let’s say a spaceship travels at 20,000 miles per hour, a little faster than the U.S. space shuttle, which flew at 17,500 miles per hour. At that speed, it would take people 137,000 years to reach the stars. Plenty of time for some self-care away from the boyfriend.
Even across astronomical distances, though, it’s possible to see stars with some clarity. Celebrity journalists have to use tiny clues to try to understand the lives of their subjects, and so do astronomers. Telescopes, on the ground and in space, gaze out and absorb stars’ light. Astronomers split that light into different wavelengths, in the same way a prism spreads light into a rainbow of colors. The wavelengths can reveal certain properties of stars, such as composition and temperature. Astronomers have used this technique to explore a variety of stars in the cosmos.
If Grande wanted to get a little specific about the kind of star she is, she has several options.
All stars form in the same way, from within clouds of cosmic dust. Dust twists into knots that grow until they collapse under their own weight, leaving behind clumps that become super hot and radiant. But stars, as eternal and unyielding as they might seem to us, transform through the course of their lifetime.
Most stars in the universe are main-sequence stars, including the sun and our neighbors in Alpha Centauri. These stars are in the prime of their life, fusing hydrogen to create helium to produce their blinding radiance for billions of years. (At 25, Grande arguably is in the prime of her career, with years of blinding radiance to come.) The smallest stars, known as red dwarfs, emit a tiny fraction of our sun’s energy. The most massive, known as hypergiants, exude hundreds of thousands of times more energy.
A big star like Ariana might see the fate of space-bound stars as a warning, too: A star’s fuel is finite, and the more massive it is, the faster it will burn out. Longevity favors the smallest.
When stars run out of their hydrogen supply, they metamorphose into something else. Their new appearance depends on their mass. The biggest stars explode in dazzling explosions called supernovae and leave behind dense remnants known as neutron stars. (I’m not a music producer, but “Supernova” sounds like Grande’s next hit.) Our own star will expand and cool into what’s known as a red giant. Eventually, it will shed its outer layers to space and expose an extremely dense core. After that, it’ll be known as a white dwarf.
Sun-like stars, red dwarfs, white dwarfs, red giants, hypergiants—any star in the universe, though, has plenty of the space Grande craves. Last year, astronomers working on the Hubble Space Telescope announced the discovery of the most-distant star to date, a hypergiant nicknamed Icarus, about 9 billion light-years away. The light traversed the cosmos for 9 billion years before reaching the telescope.
The most distant stars are some of the most interesting to astronomers. The farthest stars are also the earliest stars in the universe. Astronomers study them because they want to know what the cosmos was like at the very beginning, which is a mysterious period in astronomy. This may be where Ariana Grande and astronomers diverge. Grande sings that maintaining some mystery will only strengthen her bond with her suitor. For astronomers, the mysteries that distance creates cause only pain.