Caught for the First Time: The Early Flash of an Exploding Star


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Apr 14, 2008
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Spotting supernovae is relatively easy, but witnessing the immediate aftermath of those exploding stars? That's hard -- however, NASA has managed just that. By using the Kepler space telescope to capture the light of 500 galaxy every 30 minutes for 3 years, the agency caught the flash of a supernova's initial shockwave as a red supergiant (KSN 2011d) met its grisly end. That's no mean feat when this early burst only lasted roughly 20 minutes, and the target star was a whopping 1.2 billion light years away.

The data helps confirm scientists' models for how Type II supernovae (where the star is between 8 and 50 times the size of the Sun) behave, but it also uncovered a surprise or two. The team didn't spot a shockwave in the supernova of a smaller red supergiant, KSN 2011a, suggesting that there's significant variety in how these explosions take place -- the theory is that a gas cloud obscured the blast. Whatever the cause, the findings should help us understand more about the life cycles of stars.

Published on Mar 21, 2016
The brilliant flash of an exploding star’s shockwave—what astronomers call the “shock breakout” -- is illustrated in this cartoon animation. The animation begins with a view of a red supergiant star that is 500 times bigger and 20,000 brighter than our sun. When the star’s internal furnace can no longer sustain nuclear fusion its core to collapses under gravity. A shockwave from the implosion rushes upward through the star’s layers. The shockwave initially breaks through the star’s visible surface as a series of finger-like plasma jets. Only 20 minute later the full fury of the shockwave reaches the surface and the doomed star blasts apart as a supernova explosion. This animation is based on photometric observations made by NASA’s Kepler space telescope. By closely monitoring the star KSN 2011d, located 1.2 billion light-years away, Kepler caught the onset of the early flash and subsequent explosion.
Credit: NASA Ames, STScI/G. Bacon
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