Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - 4

SPECTRUM

by Peter Tyson

Witnessing a Supernova

The Essential Guide to Astronomy
Founded in 1941 by Charles A. Federer, Jr.
and Helen Spence Federer

EVERY TIME I THINK about supernovae, I feel a sense of longing:
I want to get up close and watch them explode and evolve in all
their stupendous glory. Why do they have to be so far away? Why
does everything in the universe have to be so darn spread out? I
don't mean approaching a supernova in a physical way - obviously that wouldn't be advisable - but in the way an omniscient observer
could. Wouldn't it be neat if we could safely ponder these celestial blasts and
their breathtaking consequences from a front-row seat, as it were?
In a way, we now can. When Supernova 1987A came alive in the Large
Magellanic Cloud 30 years ago this month - see Harvard astronomer Bob
Kirshner's article on page 36 - we had only a few, small space telescopes with
which to study it from above the atmosphere, such as the International Ultraviolet Explorer. Today, many powerful instruments in orbit can help us track
the denouements of such supergiant stars across a far wider swath of the
electromagnetic spectrum. The Hubble Space Telescope allows us to observe
the evolving leftovers of SN 1987A, for instance, in visible light, infrared, and
ultraviolet. The Spitzer and Herschel space missions
bring us the far infrared. The Chandra Observatory
and NUSTAR give us X-ray views.
Ground-based devices supplement this input
from on high, of course. Chile-based ALMA provides millimeter-wave images that rival Hubble pictures for sharpness. Three decades ago, we weren't
Artist's concept of SN
in a position to detect gravitational waves from SN
1987A's "three-ring circus"
1987A's core collapse, but Advanced LIGO should
(see page 38).
be able to pick up spacetime ripples from a future
nearby supernova. And wide-field surveys like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will find greatly increased numbers of much more distant detonations.
Supercomputers have become more super, enabling modelers to run more
refined simulations to better see exactly what happens . . . we hope. And
thoughtful artists' concepts, like the one above, offer alternative ways to contemplate such wonders. This one is a visualization of SN 1987A's surrounding
hourglass nebula, oriented as if we could see it from the side.
With such sophisticated capabilities, how exciting it will be when astronomers announce the first supernova to go off in our own galaxy during the
telescopic era. It might be in decades, it might be in centuries. But as Kirshner says, "Keep looking up."

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Sky and Telescope - February 2017

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Sky and Telescope - February 2017

Contents
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - Cover1
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - Cover2
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - 1
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - Contents
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - 3
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - 4
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - 5
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - 6
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - 7
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - 8
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - 9
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - 10
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - 11
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - 12
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - 13
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - 14
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Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - Cover3
Sky and Telescope - February 2017 - Cover4
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