Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

The NASA/ESA Hubble Telescope Celebrates Supernova 1987A’s 20th Anniversary

23.02.2007
Twenty years ago, astronomers witnessed one of the brightest stellar explosions in more than 400 years. The titanic supernova, called SN 1987A, blazed with the power of 100 million suns for several months following its discovery on 23 Feb., 1987.

Observations of SN 1987A, made over the past 20 years by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and many other major ground- and space-based telescopes, have significantly changed astronomers’ views of how massive stars end their lives. Astronomers credit Hubble’s sharp vision with yielding important clues about the massive star’s demise.


A String of 'Cosmic Pearls' Surrounds an Exploding Star Two decades ago, astronomers spotted one of the brightest exploding stars in more than 400 years. Since that first sighting, the doomed star, called Supernova 1987A, has continued to fascinate astronomers with its spectacular light show. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is one of many observatories that has been monitoring the blast's aftermath. This image shows the entire region around the supernova. The most prominent feature in the image is a ring with dozens of bright spots. A shock wave of material unleashed by the stellar blast is slamming into regions along the ring's inner regions, heating them up, and causing them to glow. The ring, about a light-year across, was probably shed by the star about 20,000 years before it exploded. Astronomers detected the first bright spot in 1997, but now they see dozens of spots around the ring. Only Hubble can see the individual bright spots. In the next few years, the entire ring will be ablaze as it absorbs the full force of the crash. The glowing ring is expected to become bright enough to illuminate the star's surroundings, providing astronomers with new information on how the star expelled material before the explosion. The pink object in the center of the ring is debris from the supernova blast. The glowing debris is being heated by radioactive elements, principally titanium 44, created in the explosion. The debris will continue to glow for many decades. The origin of a pair of faint outer red rings, located above and below the doomed star, is a mystery. The two bright objects that look like car headlights are a pair of stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The supernova is located 163,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The image was taken in December 2006 with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys. Credit: NASA, ESA, and R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

"The sharp pictures from the Hubble telescope help us ask and answer new questions about Supernova 1987A," said Robert Kirshner, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. "In fact, without Hubble we wouldn’t even know what to ask."

Kirshner is the lead investigator of an international collaboration to study the doomed star. Studying supernovae like SN 1987A is important because the exploding stars create elements, such as carbon and iron, that make up new stars, galaxies, and even humans. The iron in a person’s blood, for example, was manufactured in supernova explosions. SN 1987A ejected 20,000 Earth masses of radioactive iron. The core of the shredded star is now glowing because of radioactive titanium that was cooked up in the explosion.

The star is 163,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud. It actually blew up about 161,000 B.C., but its light arrived here in 1987.

Kirshner has used the Hubble telescope to monitor the supernova. "The Hubble observations have helped us rewrite the textbooks on exploding stars. We found that the actual world is more complicated and interesting than anyone dared to imagine. There are mysterious triple rings of glowing gas and powerful blasts sent out from the explosion that are just having an impact now, 20 years later."

Before SN 1987A, astronomers had a "simplified, idealized model of a supernova," Kirshner explained. "We thought the explosions were spherical and we didn't think much about the gas a star would exhale in the thousands of years before it exploded. The actual shreds of the star in SN 1987A are elongated — more like a jellybean than a gumball, and the fastest-moving debris is slamming into the gas that was already out there from previous millennia. Who would have guessed?"

Hubble wasn’t even around when astronomers first spotted the supernova in 1987. When Hubble was launched three years later, astronomers didn't waste any time in using the telescope to study the stellar blast. Its first peek was in 1990, the year the observatory launched. Since then, the telescope has taken hundreds of pictures of the doomed star.

The Hubble studies have revealed the following details about the supernova:

- A glowing ring, about a light-year in diameter, around the supernova. The ring was there at least 20,000 years before the star exploded. X-rays from the explosion energized the gas in the ring, making it glow for two decades.

- Two outer loops of glowing gas that had not been identified in ground-based telescope images.

- A dumbbell-shaped central structure that has now grown to one-tenth of a light-year long. The structure consists of two blobs of debris in the centre of the supernova racing away from each other at roughly 30 million kilometres an hour.

- The onrushing stellar shock wave from the stellar explosion is slamming into, heating up, and illuminating the inner regions of the narrow ring surrounding the doomed star.

Hubble continues to watch as the blast debris moves through the ring. The light show makes the glowing ring look like a pearl necklace. Astronomers think the whole ring will be illuminated in a few years.

The glowing ring is expected to become bright enough to illuminate the star’s surroundings, which will provide astronomers with new information on how the star ejected material before the explosion.

Astronomers are analyzing images by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to try to understand the fate of the dust that surrounds the exploded star and in the neighbourhood around the blast.

"We will learn more in the future when the shock wave moves through the inner ring and slams into the outer rings and illuminates them," Kirshner said. "It could lead to clues about the last 20,000 years of the star. But there are many things that are still a mystery. We still do not understand the evolution of the star before the explosion or how the three rings formed. We also think that the star may be part of a binary system."

Astronomers also are still looking for evidence of a black hole or a neutron star left behind by the blast. The fiery death of massive stars usually creates these energetic objects. Most astronomers think a neutron star formed 20 years ago. Kirshner said the object could be obscured by dust or it could have become a black hole.

He plans to use the infrared capabilities of the Wide Field Camera 3 — an instrument scheduled to be installed during the upcoming Hubble servicing mission — to hunt for a stellar remnant. Scientists will use another instrument planned for instalment during the mission, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, also will be used to analyze the supernova's chemical composition and velocities.

The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2013, will be able to see infrared light from the ring that is 10 times brighter than what astronomers see today. The debris inside the ring will begin to brighten, and astronomers will get another chance to study the interior of an exploded star.

Lars Christensen | alfa
Further information:
http://www.spacetelescope.org/news/html/heic0704.html

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Shape matters when light meets atom
05.12.2016 | Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore

nachricht Climate cycles may explain how running water carved Mars' surface features
02.12.2016 | Penn State

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Shape matters when light meets atom

Mapping the interaction of a single atom with a single photon may inform design of quantum devices

Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...

Im Focus: Novel silicon etching technique crafts 3-D gradient refractive index micro-optics

A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.

Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...

Im Focus: Quantum Particles Form Droplets

In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.

“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...

Im Focus: MADMAX: Max Planck Institute for Physics takes up axion research

The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.

The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...

Im Focus: Molecules change shape when wet

Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water

In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

ICTM Conference 2017: Production technology for turbomachine manufacturing of the future

16.11.2016 | Event News

Innovation Day Laser Technology – Laser Additive Manufacturing

01.11.2016 | Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

 
Latest News

IHP presents the fastest silicon-based transistor in the world

05.12.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

InLight study: insights into chemical processes using light

05.12.2016 | Materials Sciences

High-precision magnetic field sensing

05.12.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>