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NASA’s Swift Satellite Catches First Supernova in The Act of Exploding

For Release: May 21, 2008

NASA Release

G1.9+0.3
Image Credit: NASA/CXC/Wisconsin/D.Pooley et al.
Press Image and Caption

GREENBELT, Md.- Thanks to a fortuitous observation with NASA’s Swift satellite, astronomers for the first time have caught a star in the act of exploding. Astronomers have previously observed thousands of stellar explosions, known as supernovae, but they have always seen them after the fireworks were well underway.

"For years we have dreamed of seeing a star just as it was exploding, but actually finding one is a once in a lifetime event," says team leader Alicia Soderberg, a Hubble and Carnegie-Princeton Fellow at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. "This newly born supernova is going to be the Rosetta stone of supernova studies for years to come."

A typical supernova occurs when the core of a massive star runs out of nuclear fuel and collapses under its own gravity to form an ultradense object known as a neutron star. The newborn neutron star compresses and then rebounds, triggering a shock wave that plows through the star’s gaseous outer layers and blows the star to smithereens. Astronomers thought for nearly four decades that this shock "break-out" will produce bright X-ray emission lasting a few minutes.

But until this discovery, astronomers have never observed this signal. Instead, they have observed supernovae brightening days or weeks later, when the expanding shell of debris is energized by the decay of radioactive elements forged in the explosion. "Seeing the shock break-out in X-rays can give a direct view of the exploding star in the last minutes of its life and also provide a signpost to which astronomers can quickly point their telescopes to watch the explosion unfold," says Edo Berger, a Carnegie-Princeton Fellow at Princeton University.

Soderberg's discovery of the first shock breakout can be attributed to luck and Swift's unique design. On January 9, 2008, Soderberg and Berger were using Swift to observe a supernova known as SN 2007uy in the spiral galaxy NGC 2770, located 90 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Lynx. At 9:33 a.m. EST they spotted an extremely bright 5-minute X-ray outburst in NGC 2770. They quickly recognized that the X-rays were coming from another location in the same galaxy.

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