A spiral galaxy in the constellation Pegasus glows in the distance like porcelain, a saucer gently tilted in space.
This region of shining stars, some 184 million light-years from our solar system, appears to be a picture of calm, but astronomers have turned their attention to the dwarf galaxy to study the aftermath of a cataclysmic boom.
NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured this image of UGC 11860 from its location in low Earth orbit to study the remnants of a supernova. The violent cosmic explosion was first spotted by NASA in 2014 All Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae(opens in a new tab)a Hawaii-based robotic telescope cheekily dubbed the “Assassin.”
Scientists search near a supernova for extraterrestrials trying to contact us
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Giant stars of about eight times the mass of our sun or more explode in supernovae at the end of their lives and collapse in black holes.
Supernovae, the largest, brightest, and most violent explosions in the universe, are element factories, astrophysicists say: they produce things like carbon, the same chemical on which humans and much of life on Earth are based. They distribute metals such as calcium in bones and iron in blood in interstellar space. This expansion gives rise to new generations of stars and planets.
This is what astronomer Carl Sagan meant when he said we are made of “star stuff.” The same substances that make up our bodies were literally forged in the cores of stars and then catapulted through the cosmos as they died.
The astronomer Carl Sagan famously said that humans are made of “stellar material.”
Image Credit: Tony Korody/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Image
In May, a supernova was discovered in one of the spiral arms of the Pinwheel Galaxy. At just 21 million light-years away, the blast is one of the closest in decades. That may seem extremely distant, but most telescopes spotted are from between 6 and 13 billion light-years away.
The colossal flash is likely to grow brighter and be visible for many months, if not years. The event has even inspired some astronomers to study the space around the supernova in case an advanced extraterrestrial civilization decided to use the star’s explosion as a kind of beacon to get our attention.
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Not all stars suffer this fate. In fact, a medium-sized star like the Sun is not expected to go supernova, but rather to gradually run out of nuclear fuel and shed its matter in cloud rings that eventually carry it to its core, a carbon white dwarf star and oxygen, let it wither.
Artist’s impression of a supernova explosion.
Photo credit: NASA illustration
The research team Examination of UGC 11860(opens in a new tab) wants to better understand the star systems that eventually die out with the rapid kick of a supernova, according to the European Space Agency, which is collaborating with NASA on Hubble.
“The enormously high-energy processes involved in supernova explosions are largely responsible for the fact that the elements between silicon and nickel are forged in the periodic table,” according to the agency(opens in a new tab). “This means that understanding the influence of the masses and compositions of progenitor star systems is crucial to explain how many of the chemical elements formed here on Earth.”