Hubble reveals huge star’s explosion in blow-by-blow detail

NASA / ESA / STScI / Wenlei Chen (UMN) / Patrick Kelly (UMN) / Hubble Frontier Fields / Handout via Reuters
Clockwise from left: The portion of Abell 370 where the multiple images of the supernova appeared; the locations of the multiple-imaged host galaxy after the supernova faded in a composite of Hubble observations from 2011 to 2016; the images of the host galaxy and the supernova at different phases in its evolution in a Hubble picture from December 2010; the different colors of the cooling supernova at three different stages in its evolution; and three different faces of the evolving supernova.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — About 11.5 billion years ago, a distant star roughly 530 times larger than our sun died in a cataclysmic explosion that blew its outer layers of gas into the surrounding cosmos, a supernova documented by astronomers in blow-by-blow detail.

Researchers on Nov. 9 said NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope managed to capture three separate images spanning a period of eight days starting just hours after the detonation — an achievement even more noteworthy considering how long ago and far away it occurred.

The images were discovered in a review of Hubble observation archival data from 2010, according to astronomer Wenlei Chen, a University of Minnesota postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the study published in the journal Nature.

They offered the first glimpse of a supernova cooling rapidly after the initial explosion in a single set of images and the first in-depth look at a supernova so early in the universe’s history, when it was less than a fifth its current age.

“The supernova is expanding and cooling, so its color evolves from a hot blue to a cool red,” University of Minnesota astronomy professor and study coauthor Patrick Kelly said.

The doomed star, a type called a red supergiant, resided in a dwarf galaxy and exploded at the end of its relatively brief life span.

“Red supergiants are luminous, massive and large stars, but they are much cooler than most of the other massive stars — that is why they are red,” Chen said. “After a red supergiant exhausts the fusion energy in its core, a core collapse will occur and the supernova explosion will then blast away the star’s outer layers — its hydrogen envelope.”