20 Years of Surprises from Supernova 1987A
Release No.: 
2007-04
For Release: 
Wednesday, February 21, 2007 - 7:00pm

Note to editors: This release was issued jointly with the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Twenty years ago, astronomers witnessed one of the brightest stellar explosions in more than 400 years. The titanic supernova, called SN 1987A, blazed with the power of 100 million suns for several months following its discovery on Feb. 23, 1987.

Observations of SN 1987A, made over the past 20 years by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and many other major ground- and space-based telescopes, have significantly changed astronomers' views of how massive stars end their lives. Astronomers credit Hubble's sharp vision with yielding important clues about the massive star's demise.

"The sharp pictures from the Hubble telescope are helping us ask and answer new questions about Supernova 1987A," said Robert Kirshner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). "In fact, without Hubble we wouldn't even know what to ask."

Kirshner is the lead investigator of an international collaboration to study the doomed star. Studying supernovae like SN 1987A is important because the exploding stars create elements, such as carbon and iron, that make up new stars, planets, and even humans. The iron in a person's blood, for example, was manufactured in supernova explosions. SN 1987A ejected 20,000 Earth masses of radioactive iron. The core of the shredded star is now glowing because of radioactive titanium that was cooked up in the explosion.

The star is 163,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud. It actually blew up about 161,000 B.C., but its light arrived here in 1987.

Kirshner has used the Hubble telescope to monitor the supernova. "The Hubble observations have helped us rewrite the textbooks on exploding stars. We found that the actual universe is more complicated and interesting than anyone dared to imagine. There are mysterious triple rings of glowing gas and powerful blasts sent out from the explosion that are just having an impact now, 20 years later."

Before SN 1987A, astronomers had a "simplified, idealized model of a supernova," Kirshner explained. "We thought the explosions were spherical and we didn't think much about the gas a star would exhale in the thousands of years before it exploded. The actual shreds of the star in SN 1987A are elongated-more like a jellybean than a gumball, and the fastest-moving debris is slamming into the gas that was already out there from previous millennia. Who would have guessed?"

Hubble wasn't even around when astronomers first spotted the supernova in 1987. When Hubble was launched three years later, astronomers didn't waste any time in using the telescope to study the stellar blast. Its first peek was in 1990, the year the observatory launched. Since then, the telescope has taken hundreds of pictures of the doomed star.

The Hubble studies have revealed the following details about the supernova:

  • A glowing ring, about a light-year in diameter, around the supernova. The ring was there at least 20,000 years before the star exploded. X-rays from the explosion energized the gas in the ring, making it glow for the past two decades.
  • Two outer loops of glowing gas that had not been identified in ground-based telescope images.
  • A dumbbell-shaped central structure that has now grown to one-tenth of a light-year long. The structure consists of two blobs of debris in the center of the supernova racing away from each other at roughly 20 million miles an hour.
  • The onrushing shock wave from the stellar explosion is slamming into, heating up, and illuminating the inner regions of the narrow ring surrounding the doomed star.
    Hubble continues to watch as the blast debris moves through the ring. The light show makes the glowing ring look like a pearl necklace. Astronomers think the whole ring will be illuminated in a few years.
  • The glowing ring is expected to become bright enough to illuminate the star's surroundings, which will provide astronomers with new information on how the star ejected material before the explosion.

    Astronomers are analyzing images by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope to try to understand the fate of the dust that surrounds the exploded star and in the neighborhood around the blast.

    "We will learn more in the future when the shock wave moves through the inner ring and slams into the outer rings and illuminates them," Kirshner said. "It could lead to clues about the last 20,000 years of the star. But there are many things that are still a mystery. We still do not understand the evolution of the star before the explosion or how the three rings formed. We also think that the star may be part of a binary system."

    Astronomers also are still looking for evidence of a black hole or a neutron star left behind by the blast. The fiery death of massive stars usually creates these objects. Most astronomers think a neutron star formed 20 years ago. Kirshner said the object could be obscured by dust or it could have become a black hole.

    He plans to use the infrared capabilities of the Wide Field Camera 3 - an instrument scheduled to be installed during Servicing Mission 4 - to hunt for a stellar remnant. Another instrument planned for the next Hubble servicing mission, the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, also will be used to analyze the supernova's chemical composition and velocities.

    The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore conducts Hubble science operations. The Institute is operated for NASA by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., Washington.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

David A. Aguilar
Director of Public Affairs
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
617-495-7462
daguilar@cfa.harvard.edu

Christine PulliamPublic Affairs Specialist
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
617-495-7463
cpulliam@cfa.harvard.edu