Who doesn’t appreciate the beauty of the night sky – looking up to see millions of twinkling wonders against the dark backdrop of space? It fills you with a sense of wonder. But what we see in the night sky is but a fraction of what’s really out there.
Every second there are millions of cosmic events occurring, from the birth of a new star to the death of another one. These cosmic events are truly sights to behold … if you have the fancy and expensive equipment needed to see them. Luckily, those who do have the equipment are kind enough to share their marvelous pictures.
Have you ever looked at a picture of a supernova and thought, “What’s going on there?”. Well, the complexity of the process matches its beauty. Read on to find out what happens in a supernova!
What exactly is a supernova?
Simply put, a supernova is an exploding star. But why do stars just explode randomly? Well, it’s not entirely random. To answer this, we need to know how a star works.
A star is essentially just a massive nuclear explosion. In the center, there is a nuclear reaction going on, and this generates so much energy that it radiates outwards to give stars a giant sphere shape that we see millions of lightyears away as a twinkling dot.
But like all reactions, this one eventually runs out of fuel. When that happens, the star collapses in on itself and explodes, causing a supernova. The stunning array of colors is caused by the burning up and spreading out of various elements that were present in the star’s core, similarly to how a fireworks display works.
Another interesting and rather unusual way a supernova can come about is when two stars collide. The smaller one, called a white dwarf, absorbs the energy of the larger one, but can’t contain it, so it explodes.
The marvel of a supernova
Supernovas tell us a lot about what is going on in the universe. They support the theory that our universe is ever-expanding, they help to create new stars, and their components affect the atmosphere here on Earth.
A study by astrophysicists more than 20 years ago looked at distant supernovas. These scientists knew that these supernovas were a certain distance away from Earth, likely by looking at the star that came before the supernova. When the supernova appeared, they noticed that it was dimmer than would have been expected, suggesting that the universe is expanding.
The lifetime of a star is millions to billions of years, but its supernova burns only for a few months, so observing one is an absolute treasure. Some people have even seen them in the night sky with their naked eye. This is a once in a lifetime occurrence!
In terms of their effects on other celestial bodies, the waves of energy and matter that shoot out from a supernova have been known to set off the birth of new stars (which begin as a small and dense collection of matter) and even change the levels of certain elements in our atmosphere. For example, in 2009, scientists discovered nitrate ions present in the Antarctic ice (frozen from the atmosphere) that coincided with a supernova from way back in 1006 AD!
So there you have it, these gorgeous bodies of the night sky tell the whole story of how a star was born, the life it lived, and how it died. The story of the star continues to live on through other stars and even on this planet we call home.