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Bright and Brighter

June 7, 2016

The most-massive stars go out with massive explosions. But not all of these blasts are alike. Some make big booms, while others make humongous booms. And the biggest of all may shine trillions of times brighter than the Sun.

The death of a massive star is known as a supernova. It happens when the star can no longer produce enough radiation pressure in its core to counteract the inward pull of gravity. The core collapses. The star’s outer layers fall toward the core, then rebound with tremendous energy, blasting themselves into space.

But there appear to be several ways to make the blast even brighter. In one example, the core gets so hot that it generates electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons. These particles then ram together and annihilate each other in blazes of pure energy — enough to give the supernova’s brightness a big boost.

A recent study found that the brightest supernovae of all may be powered by powerful magnetic fields. When the core collapses, it forms a rapidly spinning neutron star. This ultra-dense ball is known as a magnetar because it produces a magnetic field a million billion times stronger than Earth’s. As the magnetar spins, it transfers energy from its own magnetic field to the expanding cloud of debris around it. That may make the supernova shine trillions of times brighter than the Sun — brighter, in fact, than an entire galaxy of normal stars — illuminating the mighty death of a mighty star.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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