Happy anniversary, Supernova 1987A

March 2, 2017, 8:12 a.m.
This Hubble Space Telescope image shows Supernova 1987A
Photo: NASA, ESA, R. Kirshner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation), and M. Mutchler and R. Avila (STScI)

On Feb. 23, 1987, astronomers spotted a one of the brightest exploding stars ever recorded. Its brightness burned up the surrounding sky with the power of 100 million suns for a few months following its discovery.

Thirty years later, scientists are still fascinated by the supernova — dubbed Supernova 1987A (SN 1987A) — and NASA isn't one to let the anniversary of such a discovery go unacknowledged. The space agency has put together new images, time-lapse videos and a 3-D model of the supernova's burning gas ring.

Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, SN 1987A has been a treasure trove of information regarding the life cycle of a star. We've focused Hubble, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the international Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) across the past three decades, gathering data. "The 30 years' worth of observations of SN 1987A are important because they provide insight into the last stages of stellar evolution," said Robert Kirshner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in Palo Alto, California.

The aforementioned gas ring is about a light-year in diameter and existed at least 20,000 years before its star exploded. From 1993 to 2013, the ring's X-ray emission steadily got brighter. The wave from the original explosion heated the gas ring, making it bright. What lies beyond the ring is a bit of a mystery. We know there are two globs of debris that are racing away from each other at roughly 20 million miles an hour, but we don't know much beyond that.

SN 1987A is also a monger of space dust. In 2012, ALMA observed the remains of the supernova and found that it was creating a great deal of dust, dust that could eventually make its way into space. Once there, this dust could become the blocks upon which new stars or planets form. Scientists believe that such supernova dust was present in the early stages of the universe.