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Supernova spotted just hours after star's death

When stars die, they go out kicking and screaming. Astronomers capture the early stages of a supernova explosion for the first time.

A star going supernova at the end of its life epitomizes the phrase "going out with a bang."

For the first time, scientists say they've seen the early phases of that last stellar hurrah. Their findings were published on Monday in the journal Nature Physics.

A dying star tends to bloat and expand into a red supergiant until its core collapses, sending out a massive shock wave and an intense flash. This is referred to as going supernova. One famous supernova is even said to have been visible in the daytime sky back in 1604.

On Oct. 6, 2013, an automated sky scanner based at California's Palomar Observatory spotted something in the galaxy NGC 7610 in the direction of Pegasus, some 160 million light years away. An alert went out and other telescopes focused on the object to confirm that it was a red giant that had just undergone a supernova explosion a few hours earlier. Okay, technically, the explosion happened during the Jurassic period here on Earth, but light from the event was just reaching our planet for the first time a few hours before the automated system spotted it.

Ofer Yaron / Weizmann Institute of Science

The resulting observations of supernova iPTF13dqy, which also goes by SN2013fs, are the first ever captured to show a supernova explosion in its very early stages. Typically astronomers stumble upon newly observed supernovas after they've already been lighting it up for several days. This discovery could give scientists a better understanding of a star's last days and hours.

"Direct observations of the very early and limited time window before the region is swept up by supernova ejecta (debris) can significantly improve our understanding of the late stages of stellar evolution of massive stars--composition, density profiles, and mass-loss history--particularly just before the supernova explosion," astrophysicist Ofer Yaron from Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science told ResearchGate.

It's like the difference between looking at the shell of a smoldering, bombed-out building and being able look at the same building a split-second after it is hit with the bomb, as the shock wave is still impacting and shattering windows of nearby buildings.

Among other information gathered from the early observations, the team was also able to determine the exploded star had in fact been a red supergiant, reaffirming the general understanding of how supernovae happen.

Last year, scientists announced what was believed to be the brightest supernova ever observed at the time, but upon further observation was later determined to be the result of a black hole ripping a star to pieces.

Clearly, space is a violent place. We can use all the intelligence we can get to better understand this wild universe.

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