Massive stars that explode in a spectacular burst of colours known as a supernova shed significant mass just months before their death, scientists including an Indian have found, in dramatic findings that could help capture a star on its deathbed like never before.
By observing the pre-death mass loss, scientists and star-gazers can now line up their telescopes to see the actual supernova explosion – a rare phenomenon that has inspired popular culture as much as it has captured the imagination of aspiring astronomers.
“Essentially, we can now tell when a massive star will die,” Mansi Kasliwal, one of the authors of the research told HT. “It’s quite thrilling.”
The research was conducted by a team led by Eran Ofek of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, with scientists from multiple institutions including the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), the University of California Berkeley and the Washington DC based Carnegie Institution for Science, where Kasliwal works.
The findings were published on Wednesday in the renowned journal Nature.
Massive stars explode in a dramatic flash of colour, known as supernova explosions, releasing giant bursts of energy as they die. Supernova explosions occur just about thrice every century. But scientists have long eyed these explosions for more than just the visual brilliance they offer.
The elements that make up the Periodic Table – and all of nature – are born in these explosions, and capturing them at their birth could offer new insights into their characteristics. “That’s where all the chemistry is,” Kasliwal said.
Several scientific models have in the past predicted large-scale mass-loss prior to supernova explosions, but scientists have never before been able to actually capture the event.
Kasliwal and her colleagues observed a pre-explosion outburst just 40 days before the supernova known as SN2010mc exploded. The star lost one-hundredth the mass of the sun in its pre-explosion burst.
Once scientists know a star is about to die, they can also study the changes in its environment, its radius and other ambient characteristics in the days leading up to its death.