By Looking Back Through Hubble Data, Astronomers Have Identified six Massive Stars Before They Exploded as Core-Collapse Supernovae

Hubble Space Telescope
NASA's Hubble Space Telescope flies with Earth in the background after a 2002 servicing mission. (NASA Photo)

The venerable Hubble Space Telescope has given us so much during the history of its service (32 years, 7 months, 6 days, and counting!) Even after all these years, the versatile and sophisticated observatory is still pulling its weight alongside more recent addition, like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and other members of NASA’s Great Observatories family. In addition to how it is still conducting observation campaigns, astronomers and astrophysicists are combing through the volumes of data Hubble accumulated over the years to find even more hidden gems.

A team led by Caltech’s recently made some very interesting finds in the Hubble archives, where they observed the sites of six supernovae to learn more about their progenitor stars. Their observations were part of the Hubble Space Telescope Snapshot program, where astronomers use HST images to chart the life cycle and evolution of stars, galaxies, and other celestial objects. From this, they were able to place constraints on the size, mass, and other key characteristics of the progenitor stars and what they experienced before experiencing core collapse.

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Hubble saw Multiple Light Echoes Reflecting off Rings of Dust From a Supernova Explosion

Artist view of a supernova explosion. Credit: NASA

When stars reach the end of their life cycle, they experience gravitational collapse at their centers and explode in a fiery burst (a supernova). This causes them to shed their outer layers and sends an intense burst of light and high-energy short-wavelength radiation (like X-rays and gamma-rays) out in all directions. This process also creates cosmic rays, which consist of protons and atomic nuclei that are accelerated to close to the speed of light. And on rare occasions, supernovae can also create “light echoes,” rings of light that spread out from the site of the original explosion.

These echoes will appear months to years after the supernova occurs as light from the explosion interacts with the layers of dust in the vicinity. Using the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), an international team of astronomers was able to document the emergence and evolution of multiple light echoes (LEs). The team traced these echoes to a stripped-envelope supernova (SN 2016adj) located in the central dust lane of Centaurus A, a galaxy located 10 to 16 million light-years away in the constellation of Centaurus.

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Can Astronomers Predict Which Stars Are About to Explode as Supernovae?

In a recent study submitted to High Energy Astrophysical Phenomena, a team of researchers from Japan discuss strategies to observe, and possibly predict precursor signatures for an explosion from Local Type II and Galactic supernovae (SNe). This study has the potential to help us better understand both how and when supernovae could occur throughout the universe, with supernovae being the plural form of supernova (SN). But just how important is it to detect supernovae before they actually happen?

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Even Stars Doomed to Die as Supernovae can Have Planets

90 percent of all exoplanets discovered to date (there are now more than 5000 of them) orbit around stars the same size or smaller than our sun. Giant stars seem to lack planetary companions, and this fact has serious implications for how we understand solar system formation. But is the dearth of planets around large stars a true reflection of nature, or is there some bias inherent in how we look for exoplanets that is causing us to miss them? The recent discovery of two gas giants orbiting a giant star called µ2 Scorpii suggests it might be the latter.

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Supernova Remnant Cassiopeia A is Lopsided

Coloured image of Cassiopeia A based on data from the space telescopes Hubble, Spitzer and Chandra. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech [via Wikimedia]

Cassiopeia A is the remnant of a supernova that exploded 11,000 light-years away. The light from the exploding star likely reached Earth around 1670 (only a couple of years before Newton invented the reflecting telescope.) But there are no records of it because the optical light didn’t reach Earth.

The Cass A nebula ripples with energy and light from the ancient explosion and is one of the most-studied objects in deep space. It’s an expanding gas shell blasted into space when its progenitor star exploded.

But Cass A isn’t expanding evenly, and astronomers think they know why.

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Astronomers Watch a Star Die and Then Explode as a Supernova

Artist's impression of a supernova. Credit: NASA

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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Nearby Supernovae Were Essential to Life on Earth

Illustration of the Milky Way seen from Earth where supernova accelerates cosmic rays to high energies. Credit: H. Svensmark/DTU Space

It’s almost impossible to comprehend a supernova explosion’s violent, destructive power. An exploding supernova can outshine its host galaxy for a few weeks or even months. That seems almost impossible when considering that a galaxy can contain hundreds of billions of stars. Any planet too close to a supernova would be completely sterilized by all the energy released, its atmosphere would be stripped away, and it may even be shredded into pieces.

But like many things in nature, it all comes down to dose.

A certain amount of supernova activity might be necessary for life to exist.

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

Astronomers recently witnessed supernova SN 2020fqv explode inside the interacting Butterfly galaxies, located about 60 million light-years away in the constellation Virgo. Researchers quickly trained NASA's Hubble Space Telescope on the aftermath. Along with other space- and ground-based telescopes, Hubble delivered a ringside seat to the first moments of the ill-fated star's demise, giving a comprehensive view of a supernova in the very earliest stage of exploding. Hubble probed the material very close to the supernova that was ejected by the star in the last year of its life. These observations allowed researchers to understand what was happening to the star just before it died, and may provide astronomers with an early warning system for other stars on the brink of death. Credits: NASA, ESA, Ryan Foley (UC Santa Cruz); Image Processing: Joseph DePasquale (STScI)

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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A Black Hole or Neutron Star Fell Into Another Star and Triggered a Supernova

Artist's conception of the ring of material surrounding a star shortly after engulfing a dense companion. Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

What happens when you slam a neutron star (or black hole, take your pick) into a companion star? A supernova, that’s what. And for the first time ever, astronomers think they’ve spotted one.

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