New Delhi: For the first time, NASA has managed to capture the shockwave of an exploding star on camera.
The brilliant flash of an exploding star’s shockwave - what astronomers call the “shock breakout” - lasting only about 20 minutes has been captured for the first time in visible light by the Kepler space telescope.
The team led by Peter Garnavich, an astrophysics professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, analyzed light captured by Kepler every 30 minutes over a three-year period from 500 distant galaxies, searching some 50 trillion stars.
They were hunting for signs of massive stellar death explosions known as supernovae.
“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 Garnavich. “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 2011, researchers discovered two supernovae, called red supergiants, in the act of exploding, which were captured by the planet hunter Kepler. The first behemoth, KSN 2011a, is nearly 300 times the size of our sun and a mere 700 million light years from Earth. The second, KSN 2011d, is roughly 500 times the size of our sun and around 1.2 billion light years away.
While both explosions delivered a similar energetic punch, no shock breakout was seen in KSN 2011d, the smaller of the supergiants.
Scientists think that this is likely due to the smaller star being surrounded by gas, perhaps enough to mask the shockwave when it reached the star's surface.
“That is the puzzle of these results,” said Garnavich. “You look at two supernovae and see two different things. That’s maximum diversity.”
NASA's original Kepler mission ended in 2013, but scientists managed to reboot the telescope as K2 later that year, which it is aimed at exploring and diversity of planetary systems.
The findings will be published in the Astrophysical Journal.