Supernova 1987a

The supernova remnant 1987a

Supernova 1987a

Supernova 1987a occurred in a companion galaxy to the Milky Way called the Large Magellanic Cloud. When the light from this exploding star reached Earth in 1987, astronomers jumped at the rare chance to see a supernova relatively close to our planet.

The last known nearby supernova occurred inside the Milky Way and was observed in 1604, before the telescope was invented. Astronomers are still watching the 1987a supernova remnant today with the world's most powerful telescopes.

Image: Shockwaves surround the supernova remnant 1987a 18 years after the star explosion was seen on Earth (NASA, ESA, P. Challis and R. Kirshner/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

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The supernova remnant 1987a

Introduction

In 1987 astronomers observed an exploding star near our galaxy.

About Supernova 1987a

SN 1987A was a supernova in the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud (a nearby dwarf galaxy). It occurred approximately 51.4 kiloparsecs from Earth, approximately 168,000 light-years, close enough that it was visible to the naked eye. It could be seen from the Southern Hemisphere. It was the closest observed supernova since SN 1604, which occurred in the Milky Way itself. The light from the new supernova reached Earth on February 23, 1987. As it was the first supernova discovered in 1987, it was labeled “1987A”. Its brightness peaked in May with an apparent magnitude of about 3 and slowly declined in the following months. It was the first opportunity for modern astronomers to study the development of a supernova in detail, and observations have provided much insight into core-collapse supernovae. Of special importance, SN1987A provided the first chance to confirm by direct observation the radioactive source of the energy for visible light emissions by detection of predicted gamma-ray line radiation from two of its abundant radioactive nuclei, 56Co and 57Co. This proved the radioactive nature of the long-duration post-explosion glow of supernovae.

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