Observers caught these stars going supernova

Massive stellar explosions created these luminous, expanding shells of gas and dust

illustration of supernova 1987A

STELLAR SHREDS Thirty years ago, astronomers witnessed a nearby stellar explosion (illustrated above), but it wasn’t the first. Humanity has been recording local supernovas for nearly two millennia.

ALMA (ESO, NAOJ, NRAO), Alexandra Angelich (NRAO, AUI, NSF)

In A.D. 185, Chinese records note the appearance of a “guest star” that then faded away over the span of several months. In 1572, astronomer Tycho Brahe and many others watched as a previously unknown star in the constellation Cassiopeia blasted out gobs of light and then eventually disappeared. And 30 years ago, the world witnessed a similar blaze of light from a small galaxy that orbits the Milky Way. In each case, humankind stood witness to a supernova — an exploding star — within or relatively close to our galaxy (representative border in gray, below).

Here’s a map of six supernovas directly seen by human eyes throughout history, and one nearby explosion that went unnoticed. Some were type 1a supernovas, the detonation of a stellar core left behind after a star releases its gas into space. Others were triggered when a star at least eight times as massive as the sun blows itself apart. 

Tap images below map for details

map of seven supernovas
Background: ESO (CC BY 4.0)

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