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  • Writer's pictureVoraka Magazine



Article Published on 23 Feb 2024 by Kelley Rose | 

Historic Discovery: Signs of 1987 Blast's Neutron Star Found, Marking the End of a Decades-Long Scientific Pursuit


Nearly forty years ago, Earth's denizens witnessed a celestial spectacle as Supernova 1987A (SN 1987A), an exploding star in the Large Magellanic Cloud, graced our skies. This rare event, the closest supernova in four centuries, has intrigued astronomers ever since. The explosion left behind a shroud of radioactive ash and incandescent gas, concealing a stellar remnant at the heart of the cosmic aftermath.

In a groundbreaking revelation published in Science on Thursday, a team of scientists, armed with the extraordinary capabilities of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), unveiled the long-elusive mystery within SN 1987A. Contrary to expectations of a starlight-swallowing black hole, the researchers confirmed the presence of an extremely dense neutron star, a discovery hailed as a significant breakthrough in astrophysics.

JWST's unprecedented infrared prowess pierced the nebula surrounding SN 1987A, exposing it to a literal new light. Led by Claes Fransson of Stockholm University, the astronomers scrutinized the debris left by the supernova's demise. The telltale signs emerged in the form of ionized argon and sulfur, elements shockingly stripped of their electrons—a phenomenon attributed to intense ultraviolet and x-ray bombardment from a neighboring neutron star.

While a feeding black hole could theoretically explain the findings, over three decades of observations failed to provide any corroborating evidence. Thus, JWST's results stand as compelling proof of the neutron star's existence, marking a watershed moment in our understanding of cosmic phenomena.

SN 1987A's explosion, observed on February 23, 1987, presented a unique opportunity for scientists to study a relatively nearby celestial event. The initial discovery, marked by a sudden brightening in the sky, was followed by the detection of a burst of neutrinos a few hours earlier—a precursor hinting at the formation of a neutron star within the scattered remains of the progenitor star.

The study's findings align with earlier suspicions that SN 1987A did not birth a black hole, given the progenitor's mass, estimated to be around 18 times that of our sun. The neutron star, formed through the core collapse of the massive star, offers a rare opportunity to study the physics of extreme conditions.

Joanne Pledger of the University of Central Lancashire emphasizes the scientific fascination surrounding neutron stars, noting their ability to create exotic states of matter and warp spacetime due to their extreme gravitational fields. The proximity of SN 1987A's neutron star provides a unique window into these phenomena.

Careful analysis revealed that the neutron star is slightly offset from the center of SN 1987A, indicating a recoil effect caused by imbalances during the supernova explosion. Observations suggest the neutron star is moving toward Earth, having covered a distance of about 500 billion kilometers.

The ongoing mystery centers on whether SN 1987A's remnant is solely a neutron star or a pulsar—a rapidly spinning neutron star emitting energy beams like a cosmic lighthouse. The upcoming analysis of JWST observations, taken in the fall of 2023 and earlier this week, may offer insights into the nature of the remnant.

The discovery of SN 1987A's neutron star provides a unique opportunity for astronomers to delve into the earliest moments after a type II supernova. As Fransson remarks, witnessing the formation of a neutron star is unprecedented, offering a glimpse into the cosmic infancy of these enigmatic stellar events. With further studies using JWST and other telescopes, scientists anticipate unraveling more secrets hidden within this well-explored supernova—our best-studied celestial spectacle until a supernova graces our own galaxy.


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