One of the major astronomical events of the last century was Supernova 1987A. It was the closest observed supernova since Kepler’s Supernova, visible in 1604, and the first supernova visible in earthly skies since the invention of the telescope. It first appeared in Earth’s night skies – visible only from the Southern Hemisphere – on February 24, 1987. It stayed bright enough to see with the eye for many months. And then it faded, but astronomers with telescopes continued to follow it. Since then, Supernova 1987A has become one of the most studied objects in the history of astronomy. Last week, astronomers at the Dunlop Institute of the University of Toronto released the new timelapse shown at the top of this post, showing the supernova as it evolved over 25 years.
The supernova was the cataclysmic death of a blue supergiant star. It was located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, at a distance of 168,000 light-years (and thus, of course, the supernova actually took place that many years ago). The Dunop Institute said of the new timelapse:
… Yvette Cendes, a graduate student with the University of Toronto and the Leiden Observatory, has created a timelapse showing the aftermath of the supernova over a 25-year period, from 1992 to 2017. The images show the shockwave expanding outward and slamming into debris that ringed the original star before its demise.
In an accompanying paper, published in the Astrophysical Journal on October 31, Cendes and her colleagues add to the evidence that the expanding remnant is shaped – not like a ring like those of Saturn’s – but like a donut, a form known as a torus.
They also confirm that the shockwave has now picked up some one thousand kilometers per second [about 600 miles per second] in speed. The acceleration has occurred because the expanding torus has punched through the ring of debris.
The time-lapse was created from radio observations made with the CSIRO Australia Compact Telescope Array at the Paul Wild Observatory, New South Wales, Australia.
Bottom line: A new timelapse from Dunlop Institute at the University of Toronto shows Supernova 1987A evolving in the depths of space over 25 years.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.