Time-lapse reveals supernova 1987A’s changing shape over decades

By | Published: November 1, 2018 | Last updated on May 18, 2023

A time-lapse created by astronomer Yvette Cendes shows the shockwave of Supernova 1987A expanding outward and crashing into debris.

Yvette Cendes, Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics, University of Toronto

Astronomers have been captivated by Supernova 1987A — the death of a supergiant star about 168,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud — since it was first spotted in the night sky in 1987.

Supernova 1987A remains the brightest supernova humans have witnessed since Kepler’s Supernova in 1604. It was also the first supernova observed since the telescope was invented. It was first seen by Ian Shelton of the University of Toronto and Oscar Duhalde, a telescope operator on February 24, 1987.

About 30 years after the supernova was first spotted, Yvette Cendes, a graduate astrophysicist with the University of Toronto and the Leiden Observatory and a regular Discover writer, set out to create a time-lapse showing the aftermath of the supernova. She compiled data collected over 25 years, from 1992 to 2017.

“This is literally the best view we have of what happens in the aftermath of a supernova explosion,” Cendes said in an email.

This time-lapse shows the shockwave of Supernova 1987A expanding outwards, smashing into debris that circled around the original star before it exploded. Cendes and her team created the time-lapse using radio observations of the supernova made with the CSIRO Australia Compact Telescope Array at the Paul Wild Observatory in New South Wales, Australia.

Their research, which was published in The Astrophysical Journal, also provides evidence that the expanding remnant of the supernova is a torus, meaning it is actually shaped like a donut.

Cendes and her team were also able to confirm that Supernova 1987A’s shockwave has sped up to a staggering 621 miles/second (1,000 km/second). They found that this acceleration to be due to the expanding torus pushing from a more dense region of debris to a less dense region — “Classic shockwave physics!” Cendes said.

This article originally appeared on discovermagazine.com.