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Portrait of an exploded star

Time-series images made by cameras onboard the Hubble Space Telescope show the evolution of the inner remnant of Supernova 1987A.
Image courtesy of Peter Challis; NASA

It's almost time for school pictures again, and almost time for your parents to coo and carry on about how much you've grown since last year. If you think they make a big deal over those pictures, imagine how they would feel if their "baby" was an exploded star. And they hadn't seen a picture of it in more than six years!

That's how astronomers felt about SN1987A, a supernova remnant. A supernova is the explosive end of a massive star's life. When it explodes, it spits out huge amounts of gas and dust and energy in a blast wave that spreads through space. It looks a little like the ring of ripples that happens when you throw a pebble into a pond. When the blast wave bumps into other nearby particles in space, the collision creates bright bands of energy that can be photographed from space.

Scientists were excited to use the Hubble Space Telescope to take pictures of the baby supernova remnant, starting back in 1990 when the Hubble was first launched into space. But in 2004, the baby pictures stopped coming, because Hubble's equipment stopped working. Last year, a space shuttle repair crew flew to the telescope and fixed its equipment for eager astronomers back on Earth.

Kevin France of the University of Colorado in Boulder and scientists from all over the world were some of the first to see the new pictures of SN1987A, six years after its last portrait. By comparing the 2004 and 2010 pictures, France and the others were able to see how the bits and pieces of the exploded star had grown. The pictures show the shock wave pushing out into space. But they also show how energy is bouncing back toward the site of the explosion as the blast wave runs into a ring of dust and gas left behind by the supernova.


This research is published in the 3 September issue of the journal Science.