NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has captured a star exploding around 11 billion years ago. The image of what is known as a ‘supernova’ shows the evolution of the event in a single snapshot thanks to the huge forces involved in the rare phenomenon.
The picture is particularly special as it is the first detailed look at a supernova so early in the universe’s life - less than 4 billion years into its current 13.8 billion-year history. Showing three different stages of the explosion also adds to its interest.
The first author of a paper into Hubble’s discovery, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota School of Physics and Astronomy Wenlei Chen, said: “It is quite rare that a supernova can be detected at a very early stage, because that stage is really short. It only lasts for hours to a few days, and it can be easily missed even for a nearby detection. In the same exposure, we are able to see a sequence of the images—like multiple faces of a supernova.”
The reason different stages of the explosion were able to be photographed at the same time is down to the immense gravity of galaxy cluster Abell 370. This acted as a ‘cosmic lens’, bending and magnifying the light from the supernova located behind it, meaning the images of the explosion over different time periods all arrived at Earth at the same time.
Study leader and an assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Physics and Astronomy, Patrick Kelly, described the event as “probably one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen”.
An international team of astronomers, including Chen and Kelly, found the image sifting through the telescope’s data archives. The experts have calculated this supernova was about 500 times larger than the Sun.
NASA picture of the day you were born
As well as helping scientists learn more about the formation of stars and galaxies, Hubble’s data archive can also be used by amateur astronomers for a bit of fun too. Because the giant telescope explores the universe 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it means you can discover the fascinating cosmic wonders it captured on your birthday.
Stargazers have been finding the corresponding pictures and sharing them on social media using the #Hubble30, jointly celebrating Hubbles 30 year anniversary this year. To find your own special day, visit the NASA website and enter the month and day you were born.