Watching a Star’s Last Days [Nature]

A major focus of astronomy is supernova activity, and yet we have a limited understanding of what happens before the explosion. Recent research, which is covered in my Nature article Astronomers catch rare glimpse of a star’s final moments, captured the months leading up to a supernova. The data provides important insight into those final moments, and aligns nicely with existing theories.

Credit: Caltech Astronomy; Photo of Palomar Observatory in California
Credit: Caltech Astronomy; Photo of Palomar Observatory in California

From the article:

In August 2010, Eran Ofek of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and his colleagues discovered a supernova using the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF), a wide-field sky survey based at the Palomar Observatory in California.The PTF constantly sweeps the sky, often observing the same swaths nearly every night for months on end. The repeated observations make it ideally suited to pick up stars’ dying throes before they explode.


Looking back at earlier PTF images from the same patch of sky, the authors found a massive star blowing off into space a parcel of gas equivalent to about one per cent of our Sun’s mass. To the authors’ surprise, that eruption occurred a mere 40 days before the supernova itself, the researchers report in Nature.

Read the rest of the article to read more about the final moments of a star’s life and the research and theoretical work on supernovae.