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Hubble Celebrates 30th Anniversary Of Supernova 1987A With Spectacular Images

Supernova 1987A
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NASA, ESA, R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation), and M. Mutchler and R. Avila (STScI)
Photo credit | NASA

Thirty years have passed since NASA spotted one of the brightest supernovas in 400 years.

Known as Supernova 1987A, the stellar explosion generated kaleidoscopic fireworks of color and glowed with the power of 100 million suns for several months after its first sighting on Feb. 23, 1987.

The supernova continues to fascinate astronomers today with its incredible light show. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the Hubble Space Telescope has released a set of beautiful images and new information about SN 1987A.

Understanding Supernovas

Prior to the discovery of SN 1987A, astronomers had little knowledge about the nature of supernovas, simply because there had been no nearby events available for observation.

But on that fateful night in February three decades ago, the first light from the death of a star in the Large Magellanic Cloud reached Earth.

That means a new star appeared in the Southern Hemisphere and became visible to the naked eye for months before it turned faint. SN 1987A has been the brightest supernova visible from Earth since 1604.

This stellar event occurred about 166,000 light-years away from Tarantula Nebula, Milky Way's satellite galaxy called, and it offered scientists an unprecedented insight into the death of massive stars.

Spectacular Images

While ground-based telescopes could spot SN 1987A as a small blob in the sky, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope captured high-resolution images of the supernova in 1990. The mission revealed in detail the incredible structures that surrounded the dead star.

Since then, Hubble and other telescopes such as the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array and the Chandra X-ray Observatory have continued to take images of the supernova.

For SN 1987A's 30th birthday, the public can access time-lapse movies, images, and data-based animation on the supernova. Much of these images are based on the research of Salvatore Orlando, from Italy's INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo.

All these missions have shown a ring-like structure around the progenitor star of the supernova, which had been ejected from the star 20,000 years before its ending stages. These ring-like structures have been illuminated more than once. The first time happened through the light of the supernova explosion. The second time in 2001, when shock waves reached the distance of the rings.

Now, these shock waves are moving beyond that very dense ring of gas, which was generated when the wind it produced later in life struck a slower wind produced in its earlier phase.

"The details of this transition will give astronomers a better understanding of the life of the doomed star, and how it ended," said scientist Kari Frank, lead researcher in the Chandra research.

However, what lies beyond this structure is still unknown and will depend on details of the star's evolution, scientists said. Full details can be viewed at NASA's website.

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