A supernova is one of the most spectacular events that occur in the universe. It is the final stage of several that mark the end of a star’s life. Supernovas happen in all galaxies but they are difficult to observe in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, than others because of the amount of obscuring clutter that exists here. When observed, a supernova appears as the brightest object in the sky and dwarfs everything around it.
Stars go through several stages, or phases, in their lives before they die. The most pertinent for this discussion are the ways in which different stars approach the point of death. Smaller stars expand to become red giants. These are then depleted to become white dwarfs. The gravitational pull of white dwarfs is extremely high and results in the star being crushed by its own gravity. Finally, it explodes under the effect of all these forces and the result is a supernova. For larger stars, the sequence is a little different. They do not go through the red giant or the white dwarf phases. They simply run and run until there is insufficient hydrogen to effect fusion. They then collapse inward and explode in the same manner as the smaller stars. No matter which way a supernova gets there it is always the death of the star.
The launch of the Hubble Space Telescope(HST) in 1990 proved to be a great boon to the observation and study of supernovas. Since 1987 astronomers had been watching and monitoring a supernova called Supernova 1987A. They started using the HST as soon as it was available but most of the results came from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA). With these instruments, scientists at the University of Virginia were able to look very closely at the actual events going on inside a supernova. That that Supernova 1987A had thirty years to cool whilst under extremely close scrutiny gave the scientists new insight into the kind of particles that exist inside such an environment and how they change and evolve.
The pressures and temperatures inside supernovas are extreme. Protons, electrons, and neutrons can be moved around and fused into new elements and molecules. Scientists believe that the richest sources of heavy elements in the universe are supernovas. Heavy elements are those such as iron, lead, and others that have been used by man for eons. Recent additions are gallium and hafnium. Gallium has found a very widespread use in the semiconductor industry as gallium arsenide. Gallium is not very common in the earth’s crust. The study of supernovas might lead to innovations that would enable the artificial production of it. Basic atomic and sub-atomic particles are manipulated by these vast forces so easily that they can change one element into another in a split second. The fact that scientists have had 30 years to study this process with tools as sophisticated as ALMA is a truly bounteous gift to astronomers, cosmologists, physicists, and theoretical chemists.
The formation of new elements generates amounts of energy, both in the form of light and other kinds of radiation such as X-rays. A supernova is therefore open to examination by telescopes other than purely visual ones. NASA has an orbital X-ray telescope known as Chandra. The mission of Chandra is to probe all currently known X-ray sources and to discover new ones.This will enable scientists to discover what goes on inside phenomena like supernovas. Both those that are known and those that are not.
Messier 82 is called the Cigar galaxy because of its shape. A group of astronomy made a quite dazzling discovery whilst randomly pointing their telescope in the direction of said galaxy. They discovered what they believed at the time to be a new star. Further examination of the phenomenon proved it to be a supernova. This believed to be the closest supernova to the earth to have ever happened. This goes along with other recent supernova finds to increase the pool of phenomena available for research.
There is a lot of sky to search in order to find exciting new discoveries. Astronomy is one of the few professions that truly encourage amateur participants to share discoveries. The data from most of the publicly funded astrophysical research facilities are available to subscribers of all nationalities. Some of it is free. All of the information and research donated by lovers of astronomy is shared around the world and is used to further understanding of the origins of life, and the universe. The universe is the best science laboratory available to man.