Supernovas are getting their day in the sun, with two separate studies about the spectacular, distant explosions that mark the death of massive stars.
First, as reported in the journal Nature on Wednesday, an amateur astronomer setting up his camera in Argentina captured the rare first light from a supernova.
Surprisingly, this is the first-ever view of the initial burst from the explosion of a big star, since stars collapsed seemingly at random and the light from the shock breakout is fleeting.
Víctor Buso first spotted the explosion Sept. 20, 2016 in the spiral galaxy NGC 613. It’s about 40 million light years from Earth in the constellation Sculptor.
“Professional astronomers have long been searching for such an event,” said University of California Berkeley astronomer Alex Filippenko, who followed up the discovery with other observations that proved critical to a detailed analysis of explosion, called SN 2016gkg. “Observations of stars in the first moments they start exploding provide information that cannot be directly obtained in any other way.”
The new data give important clues to the physical structure of the star just before its catastrophic demise and to the nature of the explosion itself.
Meanwhile, in another study, astronomers confirmed the discovery of the most distant supernova ever detected — a big cosmic explosion that took place 10.5 billion years ago or three-quarters the age of the universe itself.
Classified as a “superluminous supernova” with the inelegant name of DES16C2nm, the object is “extremely distant, extremely bright, and extremely rare — not the sort of thing you stumble across every day as an astronomer,” said Mathew Smith of the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.
“As well as being a very exciting discovery in its own right, the extreme distance of DES16C2nm provides us a unique insight into the nature of superluminous supernovas,” Smith said.