Supernova Rare Find Advances Stellar Science

| May 21, 2008

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Most people think of stars as constant entities in the sky, seldom changing. In reality the are huge elemental and quantum machines that form, burn their fuel and die. Most die by sputtering out, but large ones sometimes explode in Nova or Supernova bursts.

Mankind has witnessed stars exploding in the night sky, but images of one in the act of exploding did not exist, until recently. From the New York Times – Scientists See Supernova in Action:

Far away on the day of Jan. 9, Earth time, a satellite telescope by the name of Swift, which happened to be gazing at the star’s galaxy, a smudge of stars 88 million light-years away in the constellation Lynx, recorded an unexpected burst of invisible X-rays 100 billion times as bright as the Sun.

In the following hours and days, as most of the big telescopes on Earth and Hubble and the Chandra X-ray Observatory watched from space, the star erupted into cataclysmic explosion known as a supernova, lighting up its galaxy and delighting astronomers who had never been able to catch an exploding star before it exploded.

“We caught the whole thing on tape, so to speak,” Dr. Soderberg said in an interview. “I truly won the astronomy lottery. A star in the galaxy exploded right in front of my eyes.”

This is indeed a rare find, what Dr Soderberg was able to image with Swift was the first 10 minutes of the Supernova burst, a time when the outer gas envelope of the start is just being lashed by the initial x-ray burst. Bad Astronomy has a much more interesting (and nerdier) write up:

We’ve seen lots of stars explode; thousands in fact. But because of the mechanics of how a star actually explodes, by the time we notice the light getting brighter, the explosion may be hours or even days old. This time, because it was caught so early, astronomers will learn a whole passel of new knowledge about supernovae.

In a millisecond, more than the mass of the Sun’s worth of iron collapses from an object the size of the Earth to a ball only about 20 kilometers across. Weirdly, it happens so quickly that the surrounding layers don’t have time to react, to fall down (think Wile E. Coyote running over a cliff’s edge). While they hesitate and just start to fall, all hell breaks loose below them.

The collapse of the core generates a vast explosion, a shock wave of incomprehensible power that moves out from the surface of the collapsed core into the layers of gas still surrounding it. Like a tsunami of energy, this shock wave works its way up to the surface of the star. The energy is so huge that the material it slams into gets heated to millions of degrees. When the shock wave breaks out through the surface, it bellows its freedom to the Universe with a flash of X-rays, a brief but incredibly brilliant release of high-energy light.

After that flash (what’s called the shock breakout), the explosion truly begins. The outer layers of the star — gas that can have many times the mass of the Sun, octillions of tons — blast outwards. The star tears itself apart, and becomes a supernova.

Why this matters – events such as this unleash more energy than we can imagine, watching that kind of energy at work is a rare opportunity to understand the processes that create all of the heavy elements, such as gold, uranium and even iron – the very material that powers our blood – was formed in explosions like this. One day if we play our cards right we will be able to summon and harness such energy to create quantities of any element in the form we desire. To get to that future, we must learn how the natural forces pull it off.

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Category: Main, Science, Space

About the Author ()

Bruce Henderson is a former Marine who focuses custom data mining and visualization technologies on the economy and other disasters.

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