Astronomers Watch a Star Die and Then Explode as a Supernova

It’s another first for astronomy.

For the first time, a team of astronomers have imaged in real-time as a red supergiant star reached the end of its life. They watched as the star convulsed in its death throes before finally exploding as a supernova.

And their observations contradict previous thinking into how red supergiants behave before they blow up.

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NASA Simulation Shows What Happens When Stars Get Too Close to Black Holes

What happens to a star when it strays too close to a monster black hole? Astronomers have wondered why some stars are ripped apart, while others manage to survive a close encounter with a lurking black hole, only a little worse for wear.

To figure out the dynamics of such an event, scientists built a supercomputer simulation and tested it out on eight different types of stars. The stars were sent towards a virtual black hole, 1 million times the mass of the Sun.

What they found was surprising.

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Quick Action Let Hubble Watch the Earliest Stages of an Unfolding Supernova Detonation

If it weren’t for supernova remnants we wouldn’t have much knowledge of supernovae themselves. If a supernova explosion is the end of a star’s life, then we can also thank forensic astrophysics for much of our knowledge. The massive exploding stars leave behind brilliant and mesmerizing evidence of their catastrophic ends, and much of what we know about supernovae comes from studying the remnants rather than the explosions themselves. Supernova remnants like the Crab Nebula and SN 1604 (Kepler’s Supernova) are some of our most-studied objects.

Observing an active supernova in the grip of its own destruction can be difficult. But it looks like the Hubble Space Telescope is up to the task.

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Newly Forming Stars Don’t Blast Away Material as Previously Believed. So Why Do They Stop Growing?

We thought we understood how stars are formed. It turns out, we don’t. Not completely, anyway. A new study, recently conducted using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, is sending astronomers back to the drawing board to rewrite the accepted model of stellar formation.

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An All-Sky X-Ray Survey Finds the Biggest Supernova Remnant Ever Seen

Our sky is missing supernovas. Stars live for millions or billions of years. But given the sheer number of stars in the Milky Way, we should still expect these cataclysmic stellar deaths every 30-50 years. Few of those explosions will be within naked-eye-range of Earth. Nova is from the Latin meaning “new”. Over the last 2000 years, humans have seen about seven “new” stars appear in the sky – some bright enough to be seen during the day – until they faded after the initial explosion. While we haven’t seen a new star appear in the sky for over 400 years, we can see the aftermath with telescopes – supernova remnants (SNRs) – the hot expanding gases of stellar explosions. SNRs are visible up to a 150,000 years before fading into the Galaxy. So, doing the math, there should be about 1200 visible SNRs in our sky but we’ve only managed to find about 300. That was until “Hoinga” was recently discovered. Named after the hometown of first author Scientist Werner Becker, whose research team found the SNR using the eROSITA All-Sky X-ray survey, Hoinga is one of the largest SNRs ever seen.

Composite of the X-ray (pink) and radio (blue) image of Hoinga. The X-rays discovered by eROSITA are emitted by the hot debris of the exploded progenitor star. Radio antennae on Earth detect radiation emission from electrons in the outer shell of the supernova
Credit: eROSITA/MPE (X-ray), CHIPASS/SPASS/N. Hurley-Walker, ICRAR-Curtin (Radio)
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A New Supernova Remnant Found from an Exploding White Dwarf Star

Astronomers have spotted the remnant of a rare type of supernova explosion. It’s called a Type Iax supernova, and it’s the result of an exploding white dwarf. These are relatively rare supernovae, and astronomers think they’re responsible for creating many heavy elements.

They’ve found them in other galaxies before, but this is the first time they’ve spotted one in the Milky Way.

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A Galaxy is Making New Stars Faster Than its Black Hole Can Starve Them for Fuel

A monster lurks at the heart of many galaxies – even our own Milky Way. This monster possesses the mass of millions or billions of Suns. Immense gravity shrouds it within a dark cocoon of space and time – a supermassive black hole. But while hidden in darkness and difficult to observe, black holes can also shine brighter than an entire galaxy. When feeding, these sleeping monsters awaken transforming into a quasar – one of the Universe’s most luminous objects. The energy a quasar radiates into space is so powerful, it can interfere with star formation for thousands of light years across their host galaxies. But one galaxy appears to be winning a struggle against its awoken blazing monster and in a recent paper published in the Astrophysical Journal, astronomers are trying to determine how this galaxy survives.

Animation of Interstellar Matter Falling into a Black Hole Creating a Quasar – ESA
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An Extreme Simulation of the Universe’s First Stars

For astronomers, astrophysicists, and cosmologists, the ability to spot the first stars that formed in our Universe has always been just beyond reach. On the one hand, there are the limits of our current telescopes and observatories, which can only see so far. The farthest object ever observed was MACS 1149-JD, a galaxy located 13.2 billion light-years from Earth that was spotted in the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field (XDF) image.

On the other, up until about 1 billion years after the Big Bang, the Universe was experiencing what cosmologists refer to as the “Dark Ages” when the Universe was filled with gas clouds that obscured visible and infrared light. Luckily, a team of researchers from Georgia Tech’s Center for Relativistic Astrophysics recently conducted simulations that show what the formation of the first stars looked like.

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