When a star reaches the end of its life and burns out the last of its nuclear fuel, it becomes unstable. What happens next depends how much mass the star has.
Stars born with masses many times greater than that of the Sun are predicted to die in violent explosions called supernovae.
A supernova begins with the star collapsing when it can no longer support itself against gravity's inward pressure. After the collapse, it blasts its outer layers into space. The star's core is left behind in the collapsed form of a neutron star or black hole.
Image: A supernova remnant called N49 in the Large Magellanic Cloud (NASA/STScI/UIUC/Y.H.Chu & R.Williams et al.)
Stars can die in massive explosions.
Pete Lawrence explains how to find the Crab Nebula.
The Sky at Night guest Pete Lawrence explains how to find the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant, in the night sky and discusses its beauty and history.
Gamma rays may provide a clue.
Professor Brian Boyle from the Anglo-Australian Observatory explains how observations of a gamma ray burst helped his team discover that it resulted from a supernova and the possible formation of a black hole.
Star death takes place alongside the birth of new stars.
The source of gamma ray bursts, high intensity flashes of gamma ray radiation from the distant Universe, puzzled scientists for many years. However, intense study tracked down the source of these explosions to the formation of black holes.
Supernovae are relatively rare, super bright events.
Supernovae are relatively rare, super bright events in the Universe. Here, the scientists who study them discuss their unique properties.
Finding exploding stars on demand takes determination.
Scientists find supernovae by making images of the sky and then waiting. A few weeks later they come back and make images of the same patch of sky to compare with the previous images. Light sources that appear in the second set of images are possible supernovae.
A supernova is an astronomical event that occurs during the last stellar evolutionary stages of a massive star's life, whose dramatic and catastrophic destruction is marked by one final titanic explosion. For a short time, this causes the sudden appearance of a 'new' bright star, before slowly fading from sight over several weeks or months.
Only three Milky Way naked-eye supernova events have been observed during the last thousand years, though many have been telescopically seen in other galaxies. The most recent directly observed supernova in the Milky Way was Kepler's Supernova in 1604, but remnants of two more recent supernovae have been found retrospectively. Statistical observations of supernovae in other galaxies suggest they should occur on average about three times every century in the Milky Way, and that any galactic supernova would almost certainly be observable in modern astronomical equipment.
Supernovae are more energetic than novae. In Latin, nova means "new", referring astronomically to what appears to be a temporary new bright star. Adding the prefix "super-" distinguishes supernovae from ordinary novae, which are far less luminous. The word supernova was coined by Walter Baade and Fritz Zwicky in 1931. It is pronounced // with the plural supernovae // or supernovas (abbreviated SN, plural SNe after "supernovae").
During maximum brightness, the total equivalent radiant energies produced by supernovae may briefly outshine an entire output of a typical galaxy and emit energies equal to that created over the lifetime of any solar-like star. Such extreme catastrophes may also expel much, if not all, of its stellar material away from the star, at velocities up to or 10% of the speed of light. This drives an expanding and fast-moving shock wave into the surrounding interstellar medium, and in turn, sweeping up an expanding shell of gas and dust, which is observed as a supernova remnant. Supernovae create, fuse and eject the bulk of the chemical elements produced by nucleosynthesis. Supernovae play a significant role in enriching the interstellar medium with the heavier atomic mass chemical elements. Furthermore, the expanding shock waves from supernova explosions can trigger the formation of new stars. Supernova remnants are expected to accelerate a large fraction of galactic primary cosmic rays, but direct evidence for cosmic ray production was found only in a few of them so far. They are also potentially strong galactic sources of gravitational waves. 30,000 km/s
Theoretical studies of many supernovae indicate that most are triggered by one of two basic mechanisms: the sudden re-ignition of nuclear fusion in a degenerate star or the sudden gravitational collapse of a massive star's core. In the first instance, a degenerate white dwarf may accumulate sufficient material from a binary companion, either through accretion or via a merger, to raise its core temperature enough to trigger runaway nuclear fusion, completely disrupting the star. In the second case, the core of a massive star may undergo sudden gravitational collapse, releasing gravitational potential energy as a supernova. While some observed supernovae are more complex than these two simplified theories, the astrophysical collapse mechanics have been established and accepted by most astronomers for some time.
Due to the wide range of astrophysical consequences of these events, astronomers now deem supernovae research, across the fields of stellar and galactic evolution, as an especially important area for investigation.