Astronomers have kept a keen eye on Supernova 1987A since it first flashed in the night sky 30 years ago this week. It was the closest and brightest supernova in centuries — bright enough to see with the unaided eye, and to study in detail with telescopes.
They’ve watched the explosion fade away; a blast wave from the star ram into rings of material around the star; and atoms from the exploding star stick together to make solid particles.
The blast wave raced outward at millions of miles per hour. A few years after the explosion, it rammed into rings around the star — one around its equator, and two others above its poles.
Those rings probably formed after the star expelled a lot of material about 20,000 years before it exploded — perhaps as the result of a merger with another star. The supernova shockwave heated the rings, causing them to glow. As the shockwave continues to expand, it’s ripping the rings apart.
As the exploding material expands and cools, atoms are sticking together to form solid particles. How and where they form helps astronomers better understand the original star and its explosion. It also helps them understand how the particles get scattered through space.
Other supernovae are thought to have contributed many of the particles that make up our planet and our own bodies. So studying the particles around 1987A can provide new insights into the birth of our own solar system — continuing discoveries from a fascinating supernova.
Script by Damond Benningfield