When Suns Explode: Telescope Captures Flash from Star's Final Moment

© NASASupernova remnant G299.2-2.9
Supernova remnant G299.2-2.9 - Sputnik International
The brilliant flash of an exploding star's shockwave has been captured in visible light for the first time by NASA's Kepler space telescope.

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Scientists analyzing light captured by the Kepler space telescope from 500 distant galaxies have discovered footage of the flash created by the shockwave of an exploding star, known as the "shock breakout."

Researchers on the Kepler Extragalactic Survey (KEGS) are examining data taken by the Kepler spacecraft over a three year mission to find exoplanets, or planets that orbit stars other than our sun, which ended in 2013. The KEGS survey is looking for supernovae, black holes and other extra-galactic transient objects.

In 2011 two massive stars exploded in view of the telescope. The first, KSN 2011a, is nearly 300 times the size of our sun and 700 million light years from Earth. The second, KSN 2011d, is roughly 500 times the size of our sun and around 1.2 billion light years away.

"To put their size into perspective, Earth's orbit about our sun would fit comfortably within these colossal stars," said Peter Garnavich, leader of the research team that published a paper on the explosions.

The two explosions, or supernovae, had light curves that match well with mathematical models of Type II explosions, which are classical, core-collapse supernovae that occur when the core of a star has passed the critical limit and can no longer support the mass of the star. 

Kepler saw both stars explode with similar energy, but the smaller star exhibited no shock breakout, which Garnavich called a "puzzle."

"You look at two supernovae and see two different things. That’s maximum diversity."

The scientists said that understanding more about supernovae will enable us to better understand the chemical complexity in space and on Earth.

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"All heavy elements in the universe come from supernova explosions. For example, all the silver, nickel, and copper in the earth and even in our bodies came from the explosive death throes of stars," explained Steve Howell, project scientist for NASA's Kepler mission.

 "Life exists because of supernovae."

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