For the first time, astronomers have observed the final days and death throes of a red supergiant star before its final collapse and massive explosion into a supernova.
Supernovas are usually only detected after they happen, although a few of a different type have been caught in the act of exploding. In this case, scientists detected the star in its final stages about 130 days before it detonated, and they were able to watch it grow progressively brighter and, at last, blow up.
“It’s like watching a ticking time bomb,” astrophysicist Raffaella Margutti, the senior author of a study of the supernova published last week in the Astrophysical Journal, said in a statement. “We’ve never confirmed such violent activity in a dying red supergiant star where we see it produce such a luminous emission, then collapse and combust, until now.”
Margutti is now an associate professor of astronomy and physics at the University of California, Berkeley, but she carried out the study while at Northwestern University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) at Evanston, Illinois.