Image: SN 1987A
NASA / ESA / CfA
The debris of Supernova 1987A is beginning to impact the surrounding ring, creating powerful shock waves that generate X-rays observed with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. Those X-rays are illuminating the supernova debris, and shock heating is making it glow in visible light.
updated 6/10/2011 9:28:56 PM ET 2011-06-11T01:28:56

The glowing entrails of an exploding star, thought to have faded over time, now appear to be lighting up again, a new Hubble Space Telescope photo reveals.

NASA released the new Hubble image of the well-known star explosion, called Supernova 1987A, on Friday. The photo shows the closest supernova explosion witnessed in almost 400 years. This has allowed astronomers to study the outburst's evolution in unprecedented detail.

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In the latest study of Supernova 1987A, a team of astronomers announced that the debris from the explosion that had faded over the years is brightening. This suggests that the star explosion, which is located 165,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud (a close neighbor of our own Milky Way galaxy),  is turning into a so-called supernova remnant. [See Hubble's new photo of Supernova 1987A]

The research is detailed in Thursday's edition of the journal Nature.

Supernovas typically transition into remnants when the exploded material starts to fade, but the brightness increases due to interactions between the debris cloud and surrounding gas. This cosmic shift is usually difficult for astronomers to study, but due to the relatively close proximity of the Large Magellanic Cloud, astronomers have been able to make detailed observations of Supernova 1987A periodically from 1994 to 2009.

"Supernova 1987A has become the youngest supernova remnant visible to us," said Robert Kirshner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. "It's only possible to see this brightening because SN 1987A is so close and Hubble has such sharp vision."

Kirshner leads a long-term study of SN 1987A using the Hubble Space Telescope. Since its launch in 1990, Hubble has provided a continuous record of the changes in the supernova.

In the new Hubble image, SN 1987A is surrounded by a ring of material that blew off the star thousands of years before it exploded. The ring extends about one light-year (about 6 trillion miles or 9.5 trillion kilometers) across. Inside that ring, the star's guts are rushing outward in an expanding debris cloud.

Most of the light from the supernova comes from radioactive decay of elements that were created in the explosion. This light fades over time, but the brightening of SN 1987A's debris suggests that a new power source is lighting it.

The debris of 1987A is beginning to impact the surrounding ring, which is creating powerful shock waves that produce X-rays that can be observed by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. Those X-rays are illuminating the supernova debris, and the heated shock waves are making it glow. This same process powers well-known supernova remnants in our own galaxy, such as Cassiopeia A.

Furthermore, since SN 1987A is still young, astronomers can study the remnants of the explosion to decode its history.

Eventually, that history will be lost when the bulk of the expanding stellar debris impacts the surrounding ring and shreds it, researchers said. But until then, SN 1987A offers astronomers the opportunity to watch as a supernova changes, they added.

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Video: Supernova in full boom

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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