Enigma of the 1987 Supernova Explosion

In 1987 a supernova went off in a dwarf galaxy approximately 168,000 light years away from earth, close enough that it was visible to the naked eye.  The light from this supernova reached Earth on February 23, 1987. As far as we can tell, that’s the closest supernova to us since 1604!  Because of its relative proximity Supernova 1987A is by far the best-studied supernova of all time.

In 1994 Hubble Wide Field camera showed three rings of glowing gas encircling the site of the star which exploded in February 1987 and came to be known as Supernova 1987A.
In 1994 Hubble Wide Field camera showed three rings of glowing gas encircling the site of the star which exploded in February 1987 and came to be known as Supernova 1987A.

Young supernova remnants have personality.   If you would like to see a time-lapse animation of Supernova1987a from 1994 to 2009 by Mark McDonald go to this link:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SN1987a_debris_evolution_animation.gif

In 2011 the debris of Supernova 1987A was beginning to impact the surrounding ring, creating powerful shock waves that generate X-rays. The shock heating made it glow in visible light as observed by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

2011 NASA Goddard Photo of Supernova 1987A 5818422030_a1920a17b0_z

For a video of Supernova 1987a in action go HERE

Jump ahead to April 3, 2013 when a team of astronomers led by the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) succeeded in observing the death throes of this giant star in unprecedented detail.

Observations performed with the Australia Telescope Compact Array produced this radio image of the remnant of Supernova 1987A
Observations performed with the Australia Telescope Compact Array produced this radio image of the remnant of Supernova 1987A

Unlike optical telescopes, a radio telescope can operate in the daytime and peer through gas and dust, allowing astronomers to see the inner workings of objects like supernova remnants, radio galaxies, and black holes. The Australian team suspects that a compact source or pulsar wind nebula is sitting in the center of the radio emission, implying that the supernova explosion did not make the star collapse into a black hole.

Supernovae are popping off all the time in distant galaxies, but nobody knows when the next close, bright supernova will take place. When it does, Supernova 1987A will have prepared us for what to expect.  In all likelihood a star may have already exploded – we just don’t know it yet.

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