Hubble Space Telescope captures a supernova as it explodes
Talk about being in the right place at the right time.
In 2010, the Hubble Space Telescope took several pictures of the Abell 370 galaxy cluster. That in itself is not a groundbreaking achievement. But a team of astronomers who systematically looked at Hubble archives discovered something incredible in those images: an image of a baby. supernova which exploded some 11.5 billion years ago, just hours after the star’s death.
The team, led by postdoctoral researcher Wenlei Chen of the University of Minnesota, was looking for transient events involving a gravitational lens, which is exactly what the supernova is. It is hidden behind Abell 370, but because light bends around the cluster of galaxies due to its gravitational pull – an effect known as gravity lensing – we can actually see it from our point of view, albeit in a distorted way.
By feeding the Hubble data into models and analyzing details in the images such as brightness and color, Chen and his team determined that the original star that had become supernova was probably a red supergiant with a diameter of about 530 times that of the sun.
They also determined that the first image in the series of three was taken by Hubble just six hours after the explosion following the core collapse, with the second and third taken approximately 10 and 30 days after the explosion, respectively.
And because the supernova is high redshift — the wavelengths of light are stretched and shifted towards the red side of the spectrum due to the expansion of the universe — the astronomers were able to estimate the age of the supernova at about 11.5 billion years old, making it one of the oldest and most distant supernovas we’ve ever seen.
The team hopes their modeling will help study similar distant supernovae, should they be discovered. Those discovered in turn would be able to continue the study of high redshift stellar populations.
A paper based on this research was: published in the magazine Nature (opens in new tab) Today.
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