The still unraveling remains of supernova 1987A are shown here in this image taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. The bright ring consists of material ejected from the dying star before it detonated. The ring is being lit up by the explosion’s shock wave. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA; NASA/Type II or core-collapse supernovae, are inherently asymmetrical, a phenomenon that had been difficult to prove before now.
“Stars are spherical objects, but apparently the process by which they die causes their cores to be turbulent, boiling and sloshing around in the seconds before their demise,” said Steve Boggs of the University of California, Berkeley, lead author of a new study on the findings, appearing in the May 8 issue of Science. “We are learning that this sloshing leads to asymmetrical explosions.”
The supernova remnant in the study, called 1987A, is 166,000 light-years away. Light from the blast that created the remnant lit up skies above Earth in 1987. While other telescopes had found hints that this explosion was not spherical, NuSTAR found the “smoking gun” in the form of a radioisotope called titanium-44.
“Titanium is produced in the very heart of the explosion, so it traces the shape of the engine driving the disassembly of the star,” said Fiona Harrison, the principal investigator of NuSTAR at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “By looking at the shift of the energy of the X-rays coming from titanium, the NuSTAR data revealed that, surprisingly, most of the material is moving away from us.”
The plot of data from NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR (right), amounts to a “smoking gun” of evidence in the mystery of how massive stars explode. The observations indicate that supernovae belonging to a class called Type II or core-collapse blast apart in a lopsided fashion, with the core of the star hurtling in one direction, and the ejected material mostly expanding the other way (see diagram at left). Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA; NASA/DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa2259