World’s first detailed look at earliest moments of a supernova explosion

This supernova was likely to be a yellow supergiant 100 times bigger than our sun.


The Australian National University (ANU) astronomers, working with NASA and an international team of researchers, have captured never-before-seen photos of an exploding giant star, 100 times bigger than the Sun.

The imagery of the supernova – the explosive death of stars – shows a powerful burst of light as the first shockwave travels through the star before it explodes.

Ph.D. scholar Patrick Armstrong, who led the study, says the event, known as the “shock cooling curve,” provides clues about what type of star caused the explosion. The ANU team captured the “major discovery” using NASA’s Kepler space telescope.

This is the first time anyone has had such a detailed look at a complete shock cooling curve in any supernova,” he said. “Because the initial stage of a supernova happens so quickly, it is very hard for most telescopes to record this phenomenon.” They saw the distinctive rise and fall of the event occur over a three-day period in the data captured by Kepler.

The astronomers used the new imagery to create a model to identify the exploding star that caused the supernova. They believe it is most likely a rare yellow supergiant 100 times the size and about 17 times the mass of our Sun.

The international team was able to confirm that one particular model, known as SW 17, is the most accurate at predicting what types of stars caused different supernovas.

We’ve proven one model works better than the rest at identifying different supernovae stars, and there is no longer a need to test multiple other models, which has traditionally been the case,” he said. “Astronomers across the world will be able to use SW 17 and be confident it is the best model to identify stars that turn into supernovas.

According to NASA, supernovas are the powerful explosion of a giant star, the biggest blasts humans have ever seen. Each blast is the extremely bright, super-powerful explosion of a star. They are important because they are believed to be responsible for the creation of most of the elements found in our universe.

Researchers are keen to understand how these stars turn into supernovas because they provide clues as to where the elements that make up our universe originate.

Kepler space telescope captured the data in 2017 before it was discontinued in 2018. It was designed to stare at slabs of the sky to search for distant planets. While other telescopes provide a handful of data points scattered across the rise and fall of an explosion, the data from this discovery is a solid thread that weaves its way from beginning to end. However, new space telescopes such as NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will likely capture more supernovae explosions.

Journal Reference:
  1. SN2017jgh – A high-cadence complete shock cooling lightcurve of a SN IIb with the Kepler telescope. DOI: 10.1093/mnras/stab2138
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