When stars reach the end of their life cycle, many will blow off their outer layers in an explosive process known as a supernova. While astronomers have learned much about this phenomena, thanks to sophisticated instruments that are able to study them in multiple wavelengths, there is still a great deal that we don’t know about supernovae and their remnants.
For example, there are still unresolved questions about the mechanisms that power the resulting shock waves from a supernova. However, an international team of researchers recently used data obtained by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory of a nearby supernova (SN1987A) and new simulations to measure the temperature of the atoms in the resulting shock wave.
30 years ago today, a supernova explosion was spotted in the southern hemisphere skies. The exploding star was located in the Large Magellanic Cloud — a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way – and Supernova 1987A was the brightest and nearest supernova explosion for modern astronomers to observe. This has provided an amazing opportunity to study the death of a star.
Telescopes around the world and in space have been keeping an eye on this event, and the latest images show the blast wave from the original explosion is still expanding, and it has plowed into a ring expelled by the pre-supernova star. The latest images and data reveal the blast is now moving past the ring.
Below is the latest image of this supernova, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. You can see it in the center of the image among a backdrop of stars, and the supernova is surrounded by gas clouds.
Hubble launched in 1990, just three years after the supernova was detected, so Hubble has a long history of observations. In addition, the Chandra X-ray telescope – launched in 1999 – has been keeping an eye on the explosion too.
Here are a few animations and images of SN1987A over the years:
Astronomers estimate that the ring material was was ejected about 20,000 years before the actual explosion took place. Then, the initial blast of light from the supernova illuminated the rings. They slowly faded over the first decade after the explosion, until the shock wave of the supernova slammed into the inner ring in 2001, heating the gas to searing temperatures and generating strong X-ray emission.
The observations by Hubble, Chandra and telescopes around the world has shed light on how supernovae can affect the dynamics and chemistry of their surrounding environment, and continue to shape galactic evolution.
A team of Australian astronomers has been busy utilizing some of the world’s leading radio telescopes located in both Australia and Chile to carve away at the layered remains of a relatively new supernova. Designated as SN1987A, the 28 year-old stellar cataclysm came to Southern Hemisphere observer’s attention when it sprang into action at the edge of the Large Magellanic Cloud some two and a half decades ago. Since then, it has provided researchers around the world with a ongoing source of information about one of the Universe’s “most extreme events”.
Representing the University of Western Australia node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research, PhD Candidate Giovanna Zanardo led the team focusing on the supernova with the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) in New South Wales. Their observations took in the wavelengths spanning the radio to the far infrared.
“By combining observations from the two telescopes we’ve been able to distinguish radiation being emitted by the supernova’s expanding shock wave from the radiation caused by dust forming in the inner regions of the remnant,” said Giovanna Zanardo of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) in Perth, Western Australia.
“This is important because it means we’re able to separate out the different types of emission we’re seeing and look for signs of a new object which may have formed when the star’s core collapsed. It’s like doing a forensic investigation into the death of a star.”
“Our observations with the ATCA and ALMA radio telescopes have shown signs of something never seen before, located at the centre or the remnant. It could be a pulsar wind nebula, driven by the spinning neutron star, or pulsar, which astronomers have been searching for since 1987. It’s amazing that only now, with large telescopes like ALMA and the upgraded ATCA, we can peek through the bulk of debris ejected when the star exploded and see what’s hiding underneath.”
A video compilation showing Supernova Remnant 1987A as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2010, and by radio telescopes located in Australia and Chile in 2012. The piece ends with a computer generated visualization of the remnant showing the possible location of a Pulsar. Credit: Dr Toby Potter, ICRAR-UWA, Dr Rick Newton, ICRAR-UWA
But, there is more. Not long ago, researchers published another paper which appeared in the Astrophysical Journal. Here they made an effort to solve another unanswered riddle about SN1987A. Since 1992 the supernova appears to be “brighter” on one side than it does the other! Dr. Toby Potter, another researcher from ICRAR’s UWA node took on this curiosity by creating a three-dimensional simulation of the expanding supernova shockwave.
“By introducing asymmetry into the explosion and adjusting the gas properties of the surrounding environment, we were able to reproduce a number of observed features from the real supernova such as the persistent one-sidedness in the radio images”, said Dr. Toby Potter.
So what’s going on? By creating a model which spans over a length of time, researchers were able to emulate an expanding shock front along the eastern edge of the supernova remnant. This region moves away more quickly than its counterpart and generates more radio emissions. When it encounters the equatorial ring – as observed by the Hubble Space Telescope – the effect becomes even more pronounced.
A visualization showing how Supernova1987A evolves between May of 1989 and July of 2014. Credit: Dr Toby Potter, ICRAR-UWA, Dr Rick Newton, ICRAR-UWA
“Our simulation predicts that over time the faster shock will move beyond the ring first. When this happens, the lop-sidedness of radio asymmetry is expected to be reduced and may even swap sides.”
“The fact that the model matches the observations so well means that we now have a good handle on the physics of the expanding remnant and are beginning to understand the composition of the environment surrounding the supernova – which is a big piece of the puzzle solved in terms of how the remnant of SN1987A formed.”
The faint green glow you see in that picture is not an early harbringer of Hallowe’en spooks. It’s hydrogen gas clouds found recently nearby W26, a future supernova in the star cluster Westerlund 1.
The European Southern Observatory’s VLT Survey Telescope in Chile spotted the hydrogen in the cluster, which has hundreds of huge stars that are only believed to be a few million years old. (Our solar system, by comparison, is about 4.5 billion years old.)
“Such glowing clouds around massive stars are very rare, and are even rarer around a red supergiant— this is the first ionised nebula discovered around such a star,” the European Southern Observatory stated.
“W26 itself would be too cool to make the gas glow; the astronomers speculate that the source of the ionizing radiation may be either hot blue stars elsewhere in the cluster, or possibly a fainter, but much hotter, companion star to W26.”
Funny enough, the nebula that surrounds the red supergiant is similar to the one surrounding SN1987A, a star that exploded as a fairly bright supernova in 1987. “Studying objects like this new nebula around W26 will help astronomers to understand the mass loss processes around these massive stars, which eventually lead to their explosive demise,” ESO added.