Space breakthrough as supernova captured in stunning detail for 'first time' ever

NASA: Hubble telescope captures fading supernova in NGC 2525

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Supernovas are, simply put, the biggest displays of fireworks nature has to offer. Caused by the deaths of giant stars, these cosmic eruptions are bright enough to outshine entire galaxies for days or even months. Until recently, scientists have only ever detected supernova remnants or the latter stages of these fiery displays.

But that has now changed thanks to a data set collected by now-retired Kepler telescope in 2017.

Astronomers at The Australian National University (ANU) in collaboration with NASA and a team of international researchers have detected the earliest moments of a supernova for the very first time.

While analysing the data collected by Kepler and the Pan-STARRS observatory in Hawaii, they encountered a peculiar burst of light.

Upon closer inspection, the light was revealed to be the initial burst seen when the first shockwave ripples through the star just before it explodes.

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Space: NASA image of a supernova

Astronomers have detected the earliest moments of a supernova for the first time (Image: NASA)

NASA Hubble telescope photo of a supernova

An example of a supernova snapped by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (Image: NASA)

The groundbreaking discovery, which has been called a world-first, was published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

According to Patrick Armstrong, a PhD student who led the study, this event is known as a “shocking cooling curve”.

Scientists can study these phenomena to try and decipher what led to the star’s violent death.

Mr Armstrong said: “This is the first time anyone has had such a detailed look at a complete shock cooling curve in any supernova.

“Because the initial stages of a supernova happen so quickly, it is very hard for most telescopes to record this phenomenon.

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“Until now, the data we had was incomplete and only included the dimming of the shock cooling curve and the subsequent explosion, but never the bright burst of light at the very start of the supernova.

“This major discovery will give us the data we need to identify other stars that become supernovae, even after they have exploded.”

The ANU astronomer named the detected supernova SN 2017jgh and have given it the type IIb classification.

Supernovas are ranked into various categories based on the process that led to a star’s demise.

A type Ia supernova, for instance, occurs in binary systems star where one of the stars is a white dwarf – the dead husk of a Sun-like star.

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NASA Hubble Space Telescope fact sheet

NASA Hubble Space Telescope fact sheet: Incredible facts and figures (Image: EXPRESS)

NASA photo of Crab Nebula

The Crab Nebula is the remnant of a supernova explosion (Image: NASA)

If the pair is close to each other, the white dwarf can start leaching material from its companion.

Once the white dwarf siphons off enough mass to become 1.4 times heavier than our Sun – the so-called Chandrasekhar Limit – it will explode into a supernova.

Type II supernovas are more straightforward, they occur when a star at least eight times bigger than the Sun runs out of fuel to sustain its nuclear reactions.

When this happens, the star cools off and its outer layers start to collapse under the pressure of gravity.

NASA explained: “Imagine something one million times the mass of Earth collapse in 15 seconds.

“The collapse happens so quickly that it creates enormous shock waves that cause the outer part of the star to explode.”

According to the ANU astronomers, SN 2017jgh was triggered by a yellow supergiant 100 times heavier than the Sun.

Mr Armstrong said: “As more space telescopes are launched, we will likely observe more of these shock cooling curves.

“This will provide us with further opportunities to improve our models and build our understanding of supernovae and where the elements that make up the world around us come from.”

Roy Walsh

Roy Walsh

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