After 30 years, a champagne supernova

Since 1987 astronomers have been closely watching as a massive star tears itself apart. Andrew Masterson reports.

These images, taken between 1994 and 2016 by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, chronicle the brightening of a ring of gas around an exploded star.
NASA, ESA, and R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation), and P. Challis (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

For the past 30 years astronomers have been watching in minute detail the after-effects of a star’s spectacular death.

When a large star reaches the final moments of its life it disintegrates in a final massive explosion, and becomes a supernova – one of the brightest things in the observable universe.

Supernova 1987A (SN 1987A) was first observed in February, 1987. Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, for the first few months its intensity was so bright it was estimated to shine with the power of 100 million suns.

It’s calmed down a bit since then, as the immediate destructive shockwave of the initial explosion has slowly dissipated, but SN 1987A remains a sight worth seeing. Indeed, it has been repeatedly observed by the Hubble Space Telescope since 1990, and recorded by the Chandra X-ray Observatory satellite since it was launched in 1999.

In addition, it has long been a target for the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array in Chile since it became operational in 2013.

To commemorate the three decades during which the supernova has given so much to astronomers around the world, NASA has released a new collection of images, videos and animations based on the data collected so far.

This scientific visualization, using data from a computer simulation, shows Supernova 1987A, as the luminous ring of material we see today.
NASA, ESA, and F. Summers and G. Bacon (STScI); Simulation Credit: S. Orlando (INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo

The data so far has provided valuable insight into the last stages of stellar evolution, and the latest recordings indicate that the most important lessons from SN 1987A’s long drawn out death might still lie ahead.

According to Chandra study leader Kari Frank of Penn State University, the supernova has now moved beyond a dense gas cloud produced by its earlier explosion.

What the future holds for it is the subject of speculation and waiting, but one thing seems certain: people will be watching the show for many decades to come.

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