Supernova Caught Starting to Explode for First Time

May 21, 2008

A brilliant burst of light marking a dying star's final moments before exploding has been glimpsed by astronomers for the first time.

Called a shock breakout, the x-ray flash—detected in January—signals the destruction of a star several times more massive than our sun.

This "first light" is just the opening salvo of a larger supernova blast that tears the star apart from within.

"They come out at the moment the star cracks open," said study team member Alicia Soderberg, an astrophysicist at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Shock breakouts have been predicted for decades but are so short-lived that they have never been seen before.

The study authors think that future wide-field x-ray surveys could allow researchers to witness the starts of hundreds of supernovae each year.

The discovery could also be a boon to scientists searching for exotic phantom particles and ripples in space-time emitted when massive stars explode.

The research is detailed in the May 22 issue of the journal Nature.

Bouncy Neutron Stars

Stars that are eight times or more massive than our sun go supernova when they run out of nuclear fuel and collapse under their own weight, forming small, dense objects called neutron stars.

Like a squeezed rubber ball, a newborn neutron star compresses and then rebounds, generating a shock wave that ploughs through the star's outer gas envelopes and rips it apart.

A shock breakout occurs when the shock wave pierces the star's surface trailed by a torrent of x-rays heralding the supernova blast.

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