Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Pasadena, CA. Astronomers have seen the aftermath of spectacular stellar explosions known as supernovae before, but until now no one has witnessed a star dying in real time. While looking at another object in the spiral galaxy NGC 2770, using NASA’s orbiting Swift telescope, Carnegie-Princeton fellows* Alicia Soderberg and Edo Berger detected an extremely luminous blast of X-rays released by a supernova explosion. They alerted 8 other orbiting and on-ground telescopes to turn their eyes on this first-of-its-kind event. The research appears in the May 22, 2008, issue of Nature magazine. “We were in the right place, at the right time, with the right telescope on January 9th and witnessed history,” remarked Soderberg. “We were looking at another, older supernova in the galaxy, when the one now known as SN 2008D went off. We would have missed it if it weren’t for Swift’s real-time capabilities, wide field of view, and numerous instruments.”
Supernovae are the explosions of massive stars—stars more than 8 times the mass of the Sun—whose cores run out of nuclear fuel and collapse in on themselves to form a neutron star or a black hole. In the process they launch a powerful shock wave that blows up the star. Until now, observations of these objects have been of the aftermath, typically several days after the initial explosion, not the first instance of death. Astrophysicists have predicted nearly 4 decades ago that the first sign of a supernova would be an X-ray blast, but none had been witnessed before Soderberg’s and Berger’s Swift observations.
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