Key Takeaways:

  1. Astronomers have observed, for the first time, the real-time explosion of a giant star named SN 2020tlf, a red supergiant located 120 million light-years away from Earth.
  2. The star exhibited unexpected pre-supernova pyrotechnics, including bright flashes of light and explosive gas eruptions, more than 100 days before its final collapse.
  3. Red supergiants, the largest stars in terms of volume, burn heavier elements than the sun, leading to violent type II supernova explosions when they start fusing iron and nickel.
  4. The breakthrough observations were made using the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy Pan-STARRS1 telescope and the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea over a 130-day monitoring period.
  5. The findings suggest that red supergiants undergo significant internal structural changes, resulting in chaotic gas explosions in the months preceding their collapse.

In a groundbreaking astronomical revelation, scientists have witnessed the spectacular explosion of a colossal star, marking the first-ever real-time observation of such an event. The star in question, a red supergiant named SN 2020tlf, situated a staggering 120 million light-years away from Earth, exhibited a fiery supernova more explosive than anticipated by researchers.

The study, recently published in the Astrophysical Journal, details how scientists commenced their observation of the doomed star over 100 days before its dramatic collapse. During this prelude, the researchers were astounded to witness the star’s surface erupting with intense flashes of light, accompanied by the expulsion of substantial gas masses – a phenomenon not previously observed in red supergiants approaching supernova.

Lead study author Wynn Jacobson-Galán, a research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, expressed the significance of this breakthrough, stating, “For the first time, we watched a red supergiant star explode!” This revelation challenges previous assumptions about the behavior of massive stars in the moments leading up to their demise.

Red supergiants, the largest stars in terms of volume, were previously studied before they went supernova, and their aftermaths were explored. However, the complete process had never been witnessed in real-time until now. These massive stars, hundreds or even over a thousand times the radius of the sun, generate energy through nuclear fusion, producing heavier elements than those burned by our sun.

As these red supergiants burn increasingly massive elements, their cores become hotter and more pressurized. Ultimately, when they begin fusing iron and nickel, these stars run out of energy, leading to a violent type II supernova explosion where their cores collapse, ejecting gassy outer atmospheres into space.

The observations of SN 2020tlf were conducted over 130 days using two telescopes in Hawaii – the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy Pan-STARRS1 telescope and the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea. The researchers detected evidence of a dense gas cloud surrounding the star at the time of its explosion, believed to be the same gas ejected in the preceding months. This discovery suggests that the star underwent violent explosions well before its core collapse.

Study co-author Raffaella Margutti, an astrophysicist at UC Berkeley, emphasized the unprecedented confirmation of such violent activity in a dying red supergiant star, where luminous emissions were observed before its collapse. The team’s observations indicate significant internal structural changes in red supergiants, resulting in chaotic gas explosions during the months leading to their ultimate collapse. This newfound understanding opens new avenues for unraveling the mysteries of these cosmic giants and their explosive finales.

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