Astronomers witnesses first moments of a star’s death in finest detail

Proudly supported by

  Last updated April 1, 2019 at 11:56 am


Astronomers using the Kepler space telescope have caught the best view of the very beginning of a supernova.

Some theoretical models propose that an exploding white dwarf – a star that has exhausted its nuclear fuel – hits a neighbouring star to produce a supernova, which appears to be the cause of SN2018oh. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

An international research team including The Australian National University (ANU) has used the Kepler space telescope in coordination with ground-based telescopes to witness the first moments of a star dying in unprecedented detail.

The astronomers witnessed the star dying a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, as part of a project that aims to solve the mystery of how stars explode.

Dr Brad Tucker, one of the lead researchers of the survey, said about 170 million years later on 4 February 2018 the array of high-powered telescopes detected the light emanating from the exploding star, otherwise known as a supernova called SN 2018oh.

“Kepler – in its final days before running out of fuel and being retired – observed the minute changes in brightness of the star’s explosion from its very beginnings, while the ground-based telescopes detected changes in colour and the atomic make-up of this dying star,” said Dr Tucker from the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

“With the combined data from these telescopes, astronomers achieved what they had hoped for – an unprecedented observation of the onset of a star’s death.”

SN 2018oh is an example of a Type Ia supernova – the kind that astronomers use to measure the expansion of the Universe and probe the nature of dark energy.

“Prior to Kepler, it was nearly impossible to study the early stages of a star explosion,” Dr Tucker said.

A typical Type Ia supernova brightens over the course of three weeks before gradually fading away, but this supernova brightened rapidly a few days after the initial explosion – about three times faster than a typical supernova at this time period.

The Dark Energy Camera at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile and the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System at Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii revealed this supernova gleaming blue during this intense period of intensity, an indication of extremely high temperatures – billions of degrees hot.

Dr Tucker said some theoretical models propose that an exploding white dwarf – a star that has exhausted its nuclear fuel – hits a neighbouring star to cause a supernova, which appears to be the cause of SN 2018oh.

“It’s possible in the case of SN 2018oh that the shock wave from the exploding white dwarf ran into the companion star, creating an extremely hot and bright halo that accounts for the added brightness and heat we observed,” Dr Tucker said.

“With this latest result, we now know a range of star systems cause these important explosions – those used by ANU Vice-Chancellor and astronomer Brian Schmidt to show the Universe was growing at an accelerating rate,” he said.

“The now retired Kepler Space telescope changed our view of the Universe – showing just how common planets around other stars are. It has also now revolutionised what we know about how stars end their lives in brilliant explosions.”

Dr Tucker said finding out the frequency and distribution of this kind of Type Ia supernova would help to refine the models used in cosmology to estimate the rate of expansion of the Universe.

Three papers by 130 scientists on this study has been published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters and The Astrophysical Journal.


The star that wouldn’t die

Amateur astronomer snaps a surprise supernova at its birth

Young stars push back to keep the universe ‘vibrant’

About the Author

ANU Newsroom
The latest and best news from the Australian National University

Published By

Featured Videos

Space technology predicts droughts several months in advance
ANU Science On Location: Booderee National Park
ANU Science On Location: Ningaloo Reef
A mix of science and sourdough
How does the crested pigeon make their mysterious alarm sound?
Why do magpies swoop?
Critically endangered swift parrot needs your help!
ANU Science On Location: Siding Spring Observatory
ANU Science On Location: Mountain Ash forests
ANU Science On Location: Warramunga Station
Secret life may thrive in warm caves under Antarctica’s glaciers
Scientists help solve mystery of what causes exploding stars
Case Closed: Mystery of How First Animals Appeared on Earth Has Been Solved
Palm cockatoos beat drum like Ringo Starr
Butterfly wings inspire new solar technologies
From window to mirror, on demand
The search for exploding stars
Coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef
Join The Search For Planet 9