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The surviving supernova star is supercharged by its own explosion

What is happening

Astronomers have spotted a star where a supernova explosion should have wiped it all out.

why is it important

The strange surviving star could help scientists better understand the big explosions that end the long lives of some stars.

A small percentage of stars – perhaps less than 1% – die out with a huge bang at the end of their life in the form of a supernova explosion that often leaves behind only a spectacular remnant.

So astronomers were surprised when they pointed NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in the direction of the thermonuclear supernova SN 2012Z and found there was still a star there.

“This surviving star is a lot like Obi-Wan Kenobi returning as a Force Ghost in Star Wars,” Andy Howell, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said in a statement. “Nature tried to knock this star down, but it came back stronger than we could have imagined. It’s still the same star, but in a different form. It transcended death.”

Howell co-authored a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal documenting the discovery that the star not only survived, but became brighter than before. The paper was presented last week at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Pasadena, California.

“Nobody expected to see a brighter surviving star. It was a real headache,” explained lead author Curtis McCully, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Santa Barbara and the Las Cumbres Observatory.

There were signs that SN 2012Z was an unusual supernova explosion. It was fainter and slower, the kind of supernova that some astronomers believe could be linked to a failed supernova that could leave behind a black hole.

In this case, it looks like the star has half exploded, swelling and getting brighter in the process. But the explosion was not strong enough to tear apart the star and blast all of its material into deep space, forming the bright nebulae often left behind by supernovae.

Supernovae are not a particularly well understood phenomenon. Researchers hope that weird outliers like this zombie star could help change that.

“We now need to understand what causes a supernova to fail,” McCully said.


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