Astronomers are celebrating after watching the spectacular death of a star happen right before their eyes. For the first time ever, they had ringside seats to witness the cosmic explosion, called a supernova, live.
Alicia Soderberg and Edo Berger were monitoring another blast in a distant spiral galaxy called NGC 2770 in the constellation of Lynx, the Wild Cat. But as they examined its dull glow, using a space telescope called Swift that views with X-ray eyes, an extremely bright light suddenly flared in the same galaxy, 90 million light-years from Earth.
The pair, from America’s Princeton University, became the first astronomers to catch a star in the act of exploding. Usually they are not found until days or weeks after the event. The pair quickly alerted other scientists including UK researchers. Telescopes around the world and in space were turned on the cosmic suicide.
Reports of their observations of the supernova, labelled SN 2008D, are published in this week’s issue of the journal Nature. The blast, seen on January 9, actually happened 90 million years ago when dinosaurs walked the Earth.
Astronomers are fascinated by supernovae because they collapse into neutron stars where a thimbleful of matter would weigh 100 million tons. Sometimes they even turn into black holes. A box of fireworks ready to explode in our own Milky Way was reported earlier this year.
Dr Kim Page of the University of Leicester, who led the X-ray analysis, said: “This observation is by far the best example of what happens when a star dies and a neutron star is born.”
Colleague Dr Paul O’Brien, of Leicester, said: “Understanding supernovae is important as these nuclear furnaces make the heavy elements from which planets like ours form.”
Photo: Nasa/Swift Science Team/Stefan Immler.
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