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Space NASA Science

Supernova Birth Observed From Orbiting Telescope 94

Posted by timothy
from the you-should-see-the-superplacenta dept.
FiReaNGeL writes "Astronomers have seen the aftermath of spectacular stellar explosions known as supernovae before, but no one had witnessed a star dying in real time — until now. While looking at another object in the spiral galaxy NGC 2770, using NASA's orbiting Swift telescope, scientists detected an extremely luminous blast of X-rays released by a supernova explosion. They alerted 8 other telescopes to turn their eyes on this first-of-its-kind event. 'We were looking at another, older supernova in the galaxy, when the one now known as SN 2008D went off. We would have missed it if it weren't for Swift's real-time capabilities, wide field of view, and numerous instruments.'" Bad Astronomy has an excellent, well-illustrated story about the discovery as well. I Don't Believe in Imaginary Property contributes a link to the BBC's coverage, and adds a nugget gleaned from Ars Technica: "SN 2007uy's collapse caused an X-ray burst of about 10^39 joules, most likely due to the 'shock break out' when the energy of the core's collapse finally reached the neutron star's surface."
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Supernova Birth Observed From Orbiting Telescope

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  • "SN 2007uy's collapse caused an X-ray burst of about 10^39 joules
    But how many gigawatts is that?
    • by FooAtWFU (699187)
      2.77777778x10^26 gigawatt-hours.
      • by Lord Crc (151920) on Wednesday May 21, 2008 @05:44PM (#23498004)
        I just had to try to put that into perspective, so I looked up [doe.gov] the net annual usage of electricity in the US. If we had somehow captured, converted and stored all that energy, the US would spend about 45 million years using it up (assuming linear growth similar to the last 10 years, and I didn't screwed up the math).
        • Doesn't seem like much at all. Put it this way, just about anything that has ever happened on Earth has been powered by the Sun. Only a tiny fraction of the Sun's output lands on Earth and yet the Earth has been powered for more than a couple of billion years. Yet you're saying that the final death throes of a star in which it's doing the most intense thing that every happen in its lifetime that it throws of enough energy to feed a single 21st century nation for a few million years. Paltry!
          • by imsabbel (611519)
            This doesnt seem to be that much because he alse assumes linear growth of energy consumption over all those millions of years.

            At the end of those 55 million years, ever person in the US would use as much energy as a small country...
          • by bodan (619290)
            Well, it did happen in just a few minutes. That's like a 10^15 factor in power, for objects that are within couple of orders of magnitudes in size.

            (The big factor is for 2 billion years over five minutes; what you're talking about would swallow some more orders of magnitude, but still...)
        • by rssrss (686344) on Wednesday May 21, 2008 @08:03PM (#23499110)
          Uh? According to the annual report at the web site you linked, the total energy usage of the US (not including isolation) is about 100 Quads per year. A quad is 10^15 BTUs. One BTU is about 1055 Joules. So, the US uses ~10^20 Joules per year (J/a). The whole world uses about 4 or 5 times that amount. But, lets say the whole world uses 10^21 J/a. At that rate it will take 10^18 years to use 10^39 J. I don't think that the universe will last a substantial fraction of that time period.
          • 45 million years struck me as a little too soon for the U.S. to go supernova, but after watching the U.S. for just the past few years, I think maybe we could pull off a regular nova or at least a stellar flare.
          • by Lord Crc (151920)
            I should have specified that I based it on electricity use. You make a good point though.
          • by rumith (983060)
            The universe as we know it might actually live that long and much longer, since the proton half-life (assuming that the Grand Unification Theory is correct and protons do decay after all) is currently estimated to be at least 10^35 years.
            • by rssrss (686344)
              I am not a physicist, nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, but:

              Proton decay From Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]

              In particle physics, proton decay is a hypothetical form of radioactive decay in which the proton decays into lighter subatomic particles, usually a neutral pion and a positron. Proton decay has not been observed. There is currently no evidence that proton decay exists.

              * * *

              Proton decay is one of the few observable effects of the various proposed GUTs, the other major one being magnetic monopoles. Both

              • by rumith (983060)

                I take the second paragraph to mean that half lives of less than 10^35 years have been ruled out. Not that 10^35 years is the half life of a proton.

                That's what I said: "it is currently estimated to be at least 10^35 years".

            • by dwye (1127395)

              The universe as we know it might actually live that long and much longer, since the proton half-life (assuming that the Grand Unification Theory is correct and protons do decay after all) is currently estimated to be at least 10^35 years.

              Except that The Big Rip will hit first, destroying those protons a few months after they destroy the Galaxy, and long before they can decay through GUT decay.

              Assuming that Dark Energy behaves exactly as currently calculated, that is.

    • by weszz (710261)
      in my mind reading that, I was wondering if it was going to time travel, since it had to have been moving faster than 88mph...

      and that much energy...

      if only there was a way to harness it...

      every now and then blow up a star and get all of our energy from that. hmm... figure what, blow up a star every couple hundred years or so should keep our lights on

    • Hydrogen burning into helium - 10 million years
      Helium burning into carbon and oxygen - 1 million years
      Carbon burning into neon, sodium, magnesium, and aluminum - 1,000 years
      Neon burning into magnesium - 3 years
      Oxygen burning into silicon, sulfur, argon, and calcium - 0.3 years
      Silicon burning into iron - 5 days

      Catching a Type II Supernova in the shock breakout - Priceless

      (copyleft MandyDaxon@BadAstronomy)
  • by woodchip (611770) on Wednesday May 21, 2008 @04:51PM (#23497464)
    Now, Who put metal in the microwave?
  • by Salsaman (141471) on Wednesday May 21, 2008 @05:07PM (#23497640) Homepage
    I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I thought it was the beans I had eaten the night before.
  • The dangers of firing up the Large Hadron Collider. Repent now, ye scientists, before we create a black hole! Or cause the sun to go nova! Or cause a Spice Girls Reunion Tour!
  • This may seem like a silly question, but were the astronomers able to capture data of the entire event, starting before the initial burst of energy was observed?

    Were they already recording data when the new supernova became apparent, is there some sort of "astronomical TiVo that continuously records data in the hopes of inadvertently observing an event such as this one, or did the scientists need to press 'record' once they observed the initial burst of energy?

    I only ask, because the article's comparision t
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Gat0r30y (957941)
      The astronomer was looking at another supernova very close to the one in question - the number i read was 8 seconds after the start (of X-ray emissions) of the new supernova - they started getting data. Indeed they got really lucky here.
      On a completely unrelated note
      Have you ever seen a supernova blow up?
      No, but if its anything like my old chevy nova it will light up the night sky
  • How long ago?
  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Wednesday May 21, 2008 @05:30PM (#23497856) Homepage Journal
    This supernova event's description includes a mention of how stars make only the elements no heavier than iron:

    After a few million years of generating energy by fusing light elements into heavier ones (hydrogen to helium, helium to carbon, and so on), the core runs out of fuel. Iron builds up in the very center of the star, and no star in the Universe has what it takes to fuse iron.


    Heavier elements (like uranium [wikipedia.org]) are actually created in the supernova event itself:

    Along with all elements having atomic weights higher than that of iron, it is only naturally formed in supernova explosions.


    So this observation is actually recording the actual origin of all the elements heavier than iron. All the jewelry and aerospace materials you've ever seen, all the copper you use in wiring and plumbing, all elements [wikipedia.org] with atomic numbers from 27 (cobalt) through 94 (plutonium) were made in crucibles like the one we just took home movies of.
    • by jmichaelg (148257) on Wednesday May 21, 2008 @06:18PM (#23498250) Journal
      ...all elements with atomic numbers from 27 (cobalt) through 94 (plutonium) were made in crucibles like the one we just took home movies of.

      Nucleo-genesis doesn't stop at plutonium. The transuranic elements get created just as well. The only difference between them and the elements up to and including plutonium is longevity. I'll bet a lot of astronomers were vying for scope access so they could look for elements in the island of stability. [wikipedia.org]
    • by sir fer (1232128)
      Thanks for that! I often wondered where the elements heavier than iron came from since iron is at the bottom of the nuclear-reaction "valley" in the energy-per nuclide curve, just never bothered to look it up and thanks to you I never need bother ;o)
      • by Doc Ruby (173196)
        You're welcome. In return, would you care to explain how the "energy per nuclide curve" works?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 21, 2008 @05:43PM (#23497976)
    I would like to correct this part of my submission:

    SN 2007uy's collapse caused an X-ray burst of about 10^39 joules, most likely due to the 'shock break out' when the energy of the core's collapse finally reached the neutron star's surface."


    That should've been SN 2008D, not SN 2007uy. I confused the old supernova with the new one somehow, which is pretty bad considering it even has the year as part of the name. The NEW supernova is the one whose X-ray burst released approximately 10^39 joules.

    Also, the unnamed "scientists" who were lucky enough to find this are Alicia Soderberg of Princeton University & her colleagues, just so we give credit where credit is due.

    - I Don't Believe in Imaginary Property [eff.org]
  • by commodoresloat (172735) * on Wednesday May 21, 2008 @05:55PM (#23498084)
    Supernovas all look the same at birth but it's proper form to smile politely and congratulate the parents anyway.
  • by DrJay (102053) on Wednesday May 21, 2008 @06:06PM (#23498166) Homepage
    Whoever wrote the summary of the story on Ars had a bad day. The figure in Joules is right, but it came when the energy hit the surface of the existing star, not whatever remnant remains of the core.

  • Which supernova? (Score:2, Redundant)

    by ozbird (127571)
    Ars Technica: "SN 2007uy's collapse caused an X-ray burst of about 10^39 joules, most likely due to the 'shock break out' when the energy of the core's collapse finally reached the neutron star's surface."

    I think they mean SN 2008D, the new supernova that was just detected by its X-ray flash. SN 2007uy was the old (31 Dec 2007) supernova they were observing at the time that SN 2008D went off.
  • automation (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Cowpat (788193) on Wednesday May 21, 2008 @07:56PM (#23499058) Journal
    So is there some sort of automated system which gets every major telescope on, or orbiting, the planet to drop what it's doing and point at supernovae (if they can see them) as they appear? Or does someone have to get a telephone directory out and start asking some unfortunate Chilean the way to the beach in a loud voice?

    I understand that astronomers have been wanting to gather as much data as they can from as many telescopes as they can on supernovae as they appear, and have organised lots of telescopes en masse before, I just wonder by what means it's achieved.

    I also think that it would be incredibly cool if, in the dusty control room of an observatory up a mountain in Hawaii or somewhere, there was a big red button labeled "push in case of supernova", which grabbed the co-ordinates currently being observed, and took over every other telescope on the planet to point at them.

    Also, have they done interferometry with this data? because that would be an awesomely large telescope diameter (and awesomely small resolution angle).
  • As far as rare events, go, there has been one tsunami (boxing day tsunami), one spectacular comet (McNaught) and now a super-nova witnessed from the beginning...any other rare events we can look forward to?
  • by flabbergasted (518911) on Wednesday May 21, 2008 @10:10PM (#23500042)
    Were any neutrino telescopes collecting data at the time? If so, did they see a signal? The delay between the time of arrival of the X-ray burst and the neutrino signal would put bounds on the mass of the neutrino. Given the distance to the supernova, there probably wasn't much of a signal, but it would be interesting to know if anything was seen.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by meringuoid (568297)
      The delay between the time of arrival of the X-ray burst and the neutrino signal would put bounds on the mass of the neutrino.

      Actually, the neutrino burst would arrive before the X-ray burst. The neutrinos are released as the degenerate gas at the stellar core collapses to neutronium; they pass through the surrounding material as if it wasn't even there, and set out into the universe immediately.

      Once the neutron core has formed, further infalling matter hits the hardest surface in the universe, and this

      • by imsabbel (611519)
        But as the detectors are running 24/7, there might be a spike.
        OTOH, this isnt andromeda, so not sure about what countrates to expect. Not a lot, after a small rule-of-thumb calculation, even in the best detectors...
      • The neutrinos are released as the degenerate gas at the stellar core collapses to neutronium; they pass through the surrounding material as if it wasn't even there, and set out into the universe immediately.

        This is mostly true. During core collapse, the high density drops the mean free path of a neutrino to a few meters, and the neutrinos become energy carriers in a short-lived equilibrating process. The resulting neutrino-neutron reactions are what allow elements heavier than Bismuth to form (s-process

  • Looks like the USS Drox [wikia.com] just went supercritical.

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