The Hubble Telescope reveals a massive star explosion in blow-by-blow detail

The Hubble Telescope reveals a massive star explosion in blow-by-blow detail

Written by Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – About 11.5 billion years ago, a distant star about 530 times larger than our sun died in a catastrophic explosion that puffed its outer layers of gas into the surrounding universe, a supernova that astronomers documented in minute detail. .

Researchers said Wednesday that NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope was able to capture three separate images spanning eight days beginning just hours after the detonation – an achievement all the more noteworthy given how long and so long ago it occurred.

The images were discovered in a review of archival Hubble observational data from 2010, according to astronomer Winley Chen, a University of Minnesota postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the study published in the journal Nature.

They provided the first glimpse of a rapidly cooling supernova after the initial explosion in one set of images and the first in-depth look at a supernova very early in the history of the universe, when it was less than a fifth of its current age.

“The supernova is expanding and cooling, so its color evolves from a hot blue to a cold red,” said Patrick Kelly, professor of astronomy at the University of Minnesota and co-author of the study.

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The doomed star, a type called a super red giant, was residing in a dwarf galaxy and exploded at the end of its relatively short lifespan.

“Red giant planets are luminous, big, massive stars, but they’re much cooler than most other massive stars — which is why they’re red,” Chen said. “After a giant red giant exhausts the fusion energy in its core, the collapse of its core will occur, and the supernova explosion will then blew out the outer layers of the star – its hydrogen envelope.”

The first image, about six hours after the initial eruption, shows that the eruption started out relatively small and extremely hot – about 180,000 degrees Fahrenheit (100 thousand Kelvin/99,725 degrees Celsius).

The second photo is about two days later and the third is about six days later. In these two images, gaseous matter emitted by the star is seen expanding outward. In the second photo, the explosion was only the fifth as in the first case. In the third photo, it’s a tenth as hot as the first.

The remnants of the exploding star likely became something incredibly dense called a neutron star, Chen said.

A phenomenon called the strong gravitational lensing explains how Hubble was able to obtain three images at different time points after the explosion. The immense gravitational force exerted by a galaxy cluster located in front of the exploding star from Earth’s perspective acted as a lens – bending and amplifying the light emitted by the supernova.

“Gravity in the galaxy cluster not only bends the light behind it, but also delays the time the light travels because the stronger the gravity, the slower the clock moves,” Chen said. “In other words, the light emission from a single source behind the lens can go through multiple paths toward us, and then we see multiple images of the source.”

Kelly described the ability to see a rapidly cooling supernova in one set of images thanks to a gravitational lensing as “absolutely amazing”.

“It’s a bit like seeing a movie reel of supernova color evolve, which is a much more detailed picture of any known supernova that existed when the universe was a small part of its current age,” Kelly said.

“The only other examples where we’ve detected an early supernova are very close explosions,” Kelly added. “As astronomers see more distant objects, they look back in time.”

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

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