Last updated June 5, 2020 at 5:36 pm
The explosive death of a star discovered within a stunning image of the centre of the galaxy could have been visible to Indigenous Australian stargazers less than 9,000 years ago.
Why This Matters: Astronomers are looking back in time to see the history of the galaxy.
A radio telescope in the Western Australian outback has captured a spectacular new view of the centre of the galaxy in which we live, the Milky Way.
The image from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope shows what our galaxy would look like if human eyes could see radio waves.
The images have also revealed the remains of star that died only 9000 years ago. This makes it possible the bright explosion of the supernova was observed by Indigenous Australians – recognised as the world’s first astronomers.
Teach This: Education Resource – Incredible image of galactic centre discovers a supernova likely seen by Indigenous Australians
Astrophysicist Natasha Hurley-Walker, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), created the images using the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth.
“This new view captures low-frequency radio emission from our galaxy, looking both in fine detail and at larger structures,” she says.
“Our images are looking directly at the middle of the Milky Way, towards a region astronomers call the Galactic Centre.”
Supernova could have been seen by Indigenous Australians
Using the images, Hurley-Walker and her colleagues discovered the remnants of 27 massive stars that exploded in supernovae at the end of their lives.
These stars would have been eight or more times more massive than our Sun before their dramatic destruction thousands of years ago.
However, one of the newly-discovered supernova remnants in particular caught the researchers interest. It lies in an empty region of space, far out of the plane of our galaxy, and so despite being quite young is also very faint.
“It’s the remains of a star that died less than 9,000 years ago, meaning the explosion could have been visible to Indigenous people across Australia at that time,” she says.
An expert in cultural astronomy, Duane Hamacher from the University of Melbourne, says some Aboriginal traditions do describe bright new stars appearing in the sky, but we don’t know of any definitive traditions that describe this particular event.
“However, now that we know when and where this supernova appeared in the sky, we can collaborate with Indigenous elders to see if any of their traditions describe this cosmic event. If any exist, it would be extremely exciting,” he says.
Other supernovae found are older
Other supernova remnants discovered in the research are very old, says Hurley-Walker.
“This is really exciting for us, because it’s hard to find supernova remnants in this phase of life—they allow us to look further back in time in the Milky Way.”
Two of the supernova remnants discovered are quite unusual “orphans”, found in a region of sky where there are no massive stars, which means future searches across other such regions might be more successful than astronomers expected.
Younger and closer supernova remnants, or those in very dense environments, are easy to spot, and 295 are already known.
Unlike other instruments, the MWA can find those which are older, further away, or in very empty environments.
New telescopes could find even more recent supernovae
The data for the research comes from the GaLactic and Extragalactic All-sky MWA survey, or ‘GLEAM’ for short.
The survey has a resolution of two arcminutes (about the same as the human eye) and maps the sky using radio waves at frequencies between 72 and 231 MHz (FM radio is near 100 MHz).
“It’s the power of this wide frequency range that makes it possible for us to disentangle different overlapping objects as we look toward the complexity of the Galactic Centre,” Hurley-Walker says.
“Essentially, different objects have different ‘radio colours’, so we can use them to work out what kind of physics is at play.”
The MWA telescope is a precursor to the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array, which is due to be built in Australia and South Africa from 2021.
“The MWA is perfect for finding these objects, but it is limited in its sensitivity and resolution,” Hurley-Walker says.
“The low-frequency part of the SKA, which will be built at the same site as the MWA, will be thousands of times more sensitive and have much better resolution, so should find the thousands of supernova remnants that formed in the last 100,000 years, even on the other side of the Milky Way.”