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.
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.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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