Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Tonight's Sky for February 23: First Naked Eye Supernova in Almost 400 Years (1987)

It was on this date in 1987 that the Earth was treated to the first supernova visible to the naked eye in nearly 400 years. Officially dubbed supernova 1987A, the stellar explosion, located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, peaked at a brightness of magnitude +3 in May and would remain visible into late summer.

Before this event, the last naked eye core collapse supernova observed was in 1601 and studied by, most notably, Johannes Kepler. To date, Kepler's Supernova is the last core collapse supernova observed within the Milky Way. Though not as bright, 1987A provided a lot of insight to scientists about the nature of these events. First: the star that exploded was a blue supergiant, a class of star that was previously thought to be stable, like our Sun (but only much, much bigger).Another insight: stars about to go supernova emit a wave of neutrinos before they explode, thus serving as a method to detect them a few hours before light from the actual explosion can be seen. 

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