Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in September, 2013.
By Dr. Ethan Siegel
In our day-to-day lives, stars seem like the most fixed and unchanging of all the night sky objects. Shining relentlessly and constantly for billions of years, it’s only the long-term motion of these individual nuclear furnaces and our own motion through the cosmos that results in the most minute, barely-perceptible changes.
Unless, that is, you’re talking about a star reaching the end of its life. A star like our Sun will burn through all the hydrogen in its core after approximately 10 billion years, after which the core contracts and heats up, and the heavier element helium begins to fuse. About a quarter of all stars are massive enough that they’ll reach this giant stage, but the most massive ones — only about 0.1% of all stars — will continue to fuse leaner elements past carbon, oxygen, neon, magnesium, silicon, sulfur and all the way up to iron, cobalt, and, nickel in their core. For the rare ultra-massive stars that make it this far, their cores become so massive that they’re unstable against gravitational collapse. When they run out of fuel, the core implodes.
The inrushing matter approaches the center of the star, then rebounds and bounces outwards, creating a shockwave that eventually causes what we see as a core-collapse supernova, the most common type of supernova in the Universe! These occur only a few times a century in most galaxies, but because it’s the most massive, hottest, shortest-lived stars that create these core-collapse supernovae, we can increase our odds of finding one by watching the most actively star-forming galaxies very closely. Want to maximize your chances of finding one for yourself? Here’s how.
Pick a galaxy in the process of a major merger, and get to know it. Learn where the foreground stars are, where the apparent bright spots are, what its distinctive features are. If a supernova occurs, it will appear first as a barely perceptible bright spot that wasn’t there before, and it will quickly brighten over a few nights. If you find what appears to be a “new star” in one of these galaxies and it checks out, report it immediately; you just might have discovered a new supernova!
This is one of the few cutting-edge astronomical discoveries well-suited to amateurs; Australian Robert Evans holds the all-time record with 42 (and counting) original supernova discoveries. If you ever find one for yourself, you’ll have seen an exploding star whose light traveled millions of light-years across the Universe right to you, and you’ll be the very first person who’s ever seen it!
Read more about the evolution and ultimate fate of the stars in our universe: science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/how-do-stars-form-and-evolve/.
While you are out looking for supernovas, kids can have a blast finding constellations using the Space Place star finder: spaceplace.nasa.gov/starfinder/.
Caption: SN 2013ai, via its discoverer, Emmanuel Conseil, taken with the Slooh.com robotic telescope just a few days after its emergence in NGC 2207 (top); NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI) of the same interacting galaxies prior to the supernova (bottom).
About NASA Space Place
The goal of the NASA Space Place is “to inform, inspire, and involve children in the excitement of science, technology, and space exploration.” More information is available at their website: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/