For the First Time, Witness the Shockwave of an Exploding Star


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For the First Time, Witness the Shockwave of an Exploding Star

The Kepler telescope is still making magic happen after all these years.
Rachel Pick
New York, US

For the first time ever, astronomers have captured the expanding shockwave of an exploding star, and it looks as awesome as you'd expect.

Never before were astronomers able to record this event, called the "shock breakout," on the visible light spectrum. But after examining years of data recorded by NASA's Kepler space telescope, an international team hunting supernovae stumbled across two star explosions.


Led by a Notre Dame astrophysics professor named Peter Garnavich, the team looked at data recorded by Kepler over a three-year timespan—data that included views of around 50 trillion stars.

Luckily for Garnavich and his colleagues, Kepler happened to record two supernovae. Both stars, named KSN 2011a and KSN 2011d, were red supergiants hundreds of times larger than our sun. However, only KSN 2011d produced a shock breakout recorded by Kepler.

Garnavich explains on NASA's blog why it's so difficult to catch the beginning of a supernova.

"In order to see something that happens on timescales of minutes, like a shock breakout, you want to have a camera continuously monitoring the sky," he said. "You don't know when a supernova is going to go off, and Kepler's vigilance allowed us to be a witness as the explosion began."

In other words, finding these supernovae as they occurred was like finding two needles in a gigantic haystack.

Of course, the video put together by NASA is an animation based on Kepler's recorded light data, but it's still incredible. The shockwave bursts through the star's surface in massive jets of plasma. Then there's an incredible flash, and the shockwave becomes a rapidly expanding field around the dying star.

Scientists hope that a better understanding of supernovae physics will lead to more thorough knowledge of how heavy elements are formed during these explosions. As Steve Howell, a Kepler project scientist, says: "Life exists because of supernovae."