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Stars go kaboom, spilling cosmic secrets

Astronomers hope type 1a supernovas will help in quest to explain dark energy

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2:18pm, July 31, 2009

At least once a second, a dim, elderly star somewhere in the cosmos turns into a thermonuclear bomb. Briefly outshining its home galaxy, the explosion, known as a type 1a supernova, unleashes the equivalent of 1028 megatons of TNT — enough energy to destroy an entire solar system.

Astronomers have marveled at these cosmic firecrackers for centuries. But so far nobody has explained in detail how these supernovas explode. Now, theorists are on the verge of attaining that understanding — and just in time, because astronomers are observing type 1a supernovas with a new urgency. In fact, the story these stars have to tell is a matter of cosmic life and death.

When astronomer Robert Kirshner, now at Harvard University, first began observing these cataclysmic explosions in 1972, it didn’t matter that no one understood how they happen. A lack of knowledge about the explosion process didn’t stop Kirshner and his colleagues, along with another team,

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