Watch: Amazing video of stars exploding with light, then dying

22 Mar 2016

NASA’s Kepler spacecraft has just landed another first, capturing an exploding star’s shockwave – what astronomers call the “shock breakout”.

Every star should go out in a blaze of glory. Storm off stage, thrash a hotel room, slag off journalists etc. For real stars, though, explosions come in a far bigger, yet rarely seen, scale.

That is until now, for NASA has amazing footage of the early flash of an exploding star, the bright point amid a fiery, speedy death.

Kepler star exploding

Two massive stars (known as red supergiants) exploded a few years back and the Kepler spacecraft captured numerous images before, during and after the event, leading to the production of this amazing video showing just how bright the death throes of stars can be.

And when the stars are 300 and 500-times the size of our sun (meaning the Earth’s entire orbit of the sun could fit within each of them) it gets pretty bright.

Kepler exploding star supernova NASA

The diagram illustrates the brightness of a supernova event relative to the sun as it unfolds, via NASA Ames/W. Stenzel

The explosion took just 20 minutes, so Kepler’s broad scope worked in its favour as it honed in on an explosion and monitored it as it happened.

The explosion of the larger star (KSN 2011d) included a substantial “shock breakout”, which is a “brilliant flash” shockwave sent out from the event. The smaller star, called KSN 2011a, didn’t produce one, a fact that is puzzling NASA scientists.

They think the likely reason is that the smaller star was surrounded by gas, perhaps enough to mask the shockwave when it reached the star’s surface.

“That is the puzzle of these results,” said Peter Garnavich, an astrophysics professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “You look at two supernovae and see two different things. That’s maximum diversity.”

The animated recreation of  KSN 2011d shows when the star’s internal furnace can no longer sustain nuclear fusion, and its core collapses under gravity. A shockwave from the implosion rushes upward through the star’s layers. The shockwave initially breaks through the star’s visible surface as a series of finger-like plasma jets, via NASA Ames, STScI/G. Bacon

All change in space

Kepler’s position at the top of the pile of NASA missions has changed a bit, with the K2 mission realigning how it works. That’s because some of its navigation tools have broken, so scientists developed a new way to stabilise it and target specific areas with greater accuracy.

This star explosion is the work of Kepler’s former mission, meaning even greater discoveries are yet to come.

“While Kepler cracked the door open on observing the development of these spectacular events, K2 will push it wide open observing dozens more supernovae,” said Tom Barclay, senior research scientist and director of the Kepler and K2 guest observer office at Ames. “These results are a tantalising preamble to what’s to come from K2.”

Main image of an explosion via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic