May 22, 2008

Astronomers caught Birth of a Supernova

On Wednesday, astronomers said that they had witnessed for the first time the birth of a supernova. But, it was luck that helped the astronemers! Alicia Soderberg, a Princeton University astronomer had been using the Burst Alert Telescope, an instrument on NASA's orbiting Swift observatory, on January 9 to study a supernova in NGC 2770. But, in a sudden stroke of luck, the same galaxy flared with x-rays and the researchers caught the whole process of formation of a supernova on tape.

A supernova is formed when a star run out of fuel and collapses in on itself to form an ultradense neutron star. The object collapses under its gravitational weight, exploding the star with the energy produced by the shockwave equal to that of trillions of nuclear bombs exploding simultaneously.

The astronomers estimate that the supernova, which has been dubbed SN 2008D, was caused by a star that was probably 30 times the mass of the Sun but of the same radius -- a so-called Wolf-Rayet star, meaning that it has lost its outer layer of hydrogen. Although the x-ray outburst lasted only seven minutes, it flashed 100 billion times brighter than the sun in that time.

Catching the supernova in the act of exploding will give scientists an insight into the birth of a supernova and provide a better understanding of the process of supernovas. NASA, Nature


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