See It! A Dazzling Light Show in SpaceThree decades ago, astronomers spotted one of the brightest exploding stars in more than 400 years. Called Supernova 1987A (SN 1987A), this titanic star blazed with the power of 100 million suns. And now the Hubble Space Telescope has taken new images of this extraordinary astronomical wonder and the dazzling light show it's putting on in outer space as the star explodes and dies.
Since that first sighting, SN 1987A has continued to fascinate astronomers with its spectacular light show. Located in the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud, it is the nearest supernova explosion observed in hundreds of years and the best opportunity yet for astronomers to study the phases before, during and after the death of a star.
The new images from Hubble reveal dramatic changes in a ring of material around the exploded star Supernova 1987A. The images, taken from 1994 to 2016, show the effects of a shock wave from the supernova blast smashing into the ring. The ring begins to brighten as the shock wave hits it. The ring is about one light-year across.
SN 1987A has passed an important threshold. The supernova shock wave is moving beyond the dense ring of gas produced late in the life of the pre-supernova star when a fast outflow or wind from the star collided with a slower wind generated in an earlier red giant phase of the star's evolution. What lies beyond the ring is poorly known at present and depends on the details of the evolution of the star when it was a red giant.
Supernovas can stir up the surrounding gas and trigger the formation of new stars and planets. The gas from which these stars and planets form will be enriched with elements such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and iron, which are the basic components of all known life. These elements are forged inside the pre-supernova star and during the supernova explosion itself and then dispersed into their host galaxy by expanding supernova remnants.
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