Astronomers Watch the Early Flash of a Supernova for the First Time Ever

An explosive finding, indeed.

NASA Ames, STScI/G. Bacon

The event of an exploding star is popularly known to the public as a supernova. When that initial explosion occurs, the explosion creates a shockwave that scientists call the “shock breakout.” We know this exists but unfortunately we’ve never seen it before. A new study led by a team of international researchers, however, has led to the first ever observation of the early flash of a exploding star — in visible light, no less.

Using the planet-hunting Kepler space telescope, the cohort of astronomers looking for supernovae analyzed light captured by Kepler over a three-year span that scanned over 500 different galaxies at various distances — amounting to about 50 trillion stars. They stumbled upon the explosion of two red supergiants: KSN 2011a (about 300 times bigger than our sun, and just a stone’s throw away at 700 light-years distance), and KSN 2011d (500 times bigger than the sun, and a little farther at 1.2 billion light-years distance).

It’s extremely difficult to capture an event like this. It’s the equivalent of looking up and watching a plane crash occur before your eyes at just the right moment.

“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,” said Peter Garnavich, an astrophysicist at the University of Notre Dame and lead author of the new study, in a NASA news release. “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 a lucky happenstance, the astronomers were able to watch not one, but two different supernovae as KSN 2011a and KSN 2011d both exploded in a burst of cataclysmic energy.

Strangely enough, no shock breakout was observed in the smaller star. The research team suspects this is because KSN 2011a was surrounded by enough gas to mask the shockwave as it reached the star’s surface.

The research team says studying these kinds of rare yet violent events can help us better understand the nature of how cosmic dust and energy scatters across the universe — especially in our own Milky Way galaxy. Heavy metals and other elements are expelled by supernovae and travel great distances to lead to the formation of other planets, including Earth.

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