Astronomers just spotted a brand-new supernova mere hours after it exploded, thanks to a robotic telescope and some smart computer algorithms. Now they’re scrambling to use as many telescopes as possible, on Earth and in space, to observe the star’s death throes.
The cosmic fireworks above capture both stellar birth and stellar death in one sweeping view. With eyes pointed at nebula NGC 3582, part of a larger star factory here in the Milky Way, the Wide Field Imager at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile managed to capture a nebula shaped by supernova glowing with the intense light of baby stars.
When speaking of the cosmos, we like to attach really amazing modifiers to the phenomena we find there, prefixes like "super-" and "extra-" or adjectives like "massive" and "giant." So, having used up most of the good ones, we're not really sure how to describe the gargantuan (oh, that's a good one) star that European researchers just discovered with the ESO's Very Large Telescope; at 265 times the mass of our own sun, it is the largest star ever discovered, by more than 100 solar masses. That is to say: it's really, really big.
Massive stars live for a very long time, so when their lives finally do come to an end they like to go out with a bang -- a bang that can become brighter than the whole galaxy for a time. Astronomers have studied and modeled these supernovae for decades, but for the first time researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics have created a 3-D computer sim of a star undergoing core collapse over a timescale of hours after the initial explosion.
If there's one thing that's true about all science – and especially science of the cosmos – it's that the body of knowledge we consider to be fact is extremely fluid. A prescient reminder of this came late last week via a paper published in the journal Nature, which found that contrary to popular theory, there is indeed more than one way for a white dwarf to die.
We know that super-massive black holes can devour stars, and we know that stellar-mass black holes born of collapsing stars often anchor at the center of galaxies, but the elusive middleweight black hole is more theory than knowledge. While scientists have long thought they are hiding out there, hard evidence of their existence has been hard to come by.