NPR ran a delightful story this morning on their show Morning Edition. In it, Hayden Planetarium director and pop-culture astrophysicist and general go-to science guy Neil deGrasse Tyson tells NPR’s David Greene the story of how he helped Superman find his home planet Krypton in the heavens, and the somber moment that came after.

DC Comics, Tyson explains, approached him for permission to use the Planetarium — as well as his likeness — in a story where Superman witnesses the destruction of Krypton, since the light from the distant planet is just now arriving on Earth. Tyson told DC Comics that he was happy to help, and that instead of just making up the story of Superman seeing Krypton, he could help them ground it in at least some actual science.

Tyson explains that Superman didn’t age during his trip to Earth, because he was still an infant upon arrival, meaning he must have traveled here through a wormhole with his little ship. If he’s in his late 20s now (the estimate DC provided) and this is the time when he can witness the explosion of his home planet, then the planet is 27 or so light years away.  He started hunting for red stars that far away, and picked out a real star.  It’s catalog number is LHS 2520, if you have the hardware necessary and want to look it up.  That star is the one Tyson identified as Rao, the home star of the planet Krypton.  And unfortunately, it’s a somber moment – Superman has to watch his birth world being destroyed.

The story, of course, is somewhat emotional for poor Superman, who already knows what’s coming (he has perhaps the ultimate spoiler alert) but can only watch helplessly, given that … well, it happened 27 years ago.

Would it really be possible to see the misery so far away? Tyson says the answer is … sort of. There’s a method that can be used to make multiple telescopes work together to form an interferometer — a super-powerful device that, in the comic, is so big that it “turn[s] the entire Earth into one coherent telescope.” Of course, that requires Superman to muster the power of all the telescopes on Earth and get them working together, which Tyson admits in real life would be a teensy bit difficult.

It’s hard work being an astrophysicist, but in this case, Tyson says he was happy to “assist Superman in his time of need.” Superman, of course, is special. “I would not have done it for Aquaman.”

When they told him he was actually going to be in the comics, he asked if they could take off a few pounds.  The response was, “Hey, it’s the comics – everybody looks fabulous in comic books.”

The issue in which this story appears is Action Comics #14.

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