The Hubble Telescope captured something amazing 12 years ago. But no one has seen it yet

The Hubble Telescope captured something amazing 12 years ago. But no one has seen it yet

About 11.5 billion years ago, a red giant star collapsed and exploded, giving rise to a stunning supernova in the early universe.

Light from the star’s catastrophic death made its way through space and time to finally be captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2010.

But it wasn’t discovered until a team of scientists led by Wenley Chen of the University of Minnesota searched the Hubble archives.

“This might be the first supernova to collapse in his heart [yet discovered]Dr. Chen said.

Hubble captured the moments immediately after the star exploded in a series of three images, the team reports today in the journal Nature.

“You can see that it’s developing over hours and days, so it’s a small supernova,” said Patrick Kelly, co-lead author of the study, from the University of Minnesota.

“This is really the first detailed look at individual supernova explosions since the universe was a small part of its age.”

Nature’s magnifying glass captures the past

Detection The supernova at the time of its explosion is difficult enough in the nearby universe, but it is even more difficult for those who exploded not long after the Big Bang.

That’s because light from objects is stretched and shifted to the red end of the spectrum – known as redshift – by the expansion of the universe.

The redder the light becomes, the more difficult it is to detect it by telescopes like Hubble, which have a limited ability to see objects at those longer wavelengths.

So astronomers turn to galaxy clusters, which distort spacetime, bending and amplifying the light coming from stars and galaxies much further away.

In 2010, Hubble captured three images of an 11.5 billion-year-old supernova (inside) magnified by the Abell 370 galaxy cluster.(Supplied: NASA / ESA / STScI / Wenlei Chen (UMN), Patrick Kelly (UMN) / Hubble Frontier Fields)

The effect results in multiple versions of the same object as light travels through different paths.

Dr. Chen discovered the supernova, which had a redshift corresponding to 11.5 billion years, magnified by a group of closer galaxies known as Abell 370 in the constellation Cetus.

The supernova was what is known as a Core collapse or a Type II supernova, which occurs when a massive star burns all its fuel and blows out and becomes faint. As temperature and pressure rise, it deflates under its own weight, sending out a shock wave.

“We are not able to see this process, because the star’s outer shell is still there, blocking the radiation from the inside,” said Dr. Chen.

When the shock wave reaches the surface of the star, it causes a bright, high-energy explosion that expands and then fades over time as it cools.


Hubble captured this “shock cooling” phase at three different time points, starting five to six hours after the explosion.

The supernova initially appeared blue, then became redder as it rapidly cooled over the course of eight days.

Color image showing a supernova in different stages
The different temperatures captured in this Hubble image show how quickly the supernova cooled over eight days from blue (hot) to red.(Supplied: NASA / ESA / STScI / Wenlei Chen (UMN), Patrick Kelly (UMN), Hubble Frontier Fields)

Dr. Chen used the supernova’s brightness and cooling rate to estimate the size of the original star.

According to his calculations, the star was about 530 times the size of our Sun, making it a type of star known as a red giant star.

“Winley’s scale is really amazing, because the individual star was so far away,” said Dr. Kelly.

Live fast die young

Discovering and seeing a distant supernova in its early stage was exciting, said Brad Tucker, an astronomer at Australian National University who has studied much closer cosmic eruptions.

While it’s hard to capture this far, Dr. Tucker said the time-dilation effects caused by the expansion of the universe mean the initial phase can be observed for much longer than a nearby supernova, where the shock cooling ended in a day or two.

“The universe has expanded so much, it has taken much longer for this process to appear,” Dr. Tucker said.

He tells us that the same process that occurs in a “vanilla core collapse supernova” in our local universe, also occurred at the beginning of time.

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