The stories of supernova 1987A, as told by Science News

Thirty years after its explosion was observed on Earth, supernova 1987A is still visible, as seen in this Hubble Space Telescope image from January. Astronomers caught their first glimpse of the stellar explosion in the wee hours of February 24, 1987, and in the last three decades, Science News has reported several stories on the explosion and the discoveries that came from it.

NASA, ESA, R. Kirshner, P. Challis, ESO/NAOJ/NRAO/A. Angelich, NASA/CXC/SAO

The planning for our supernova special issue began months ago. In one early meeting, astronomy writer Christopher Crockett lit up as he told the story of the night supernova 1987A was discovered. The account has all the ingredients of a blockbuster. There’s a struggle (with an observatory door), the element of surprise (an unexpected burst on a photographic plate), disbelief (by our protagonist and a collaborator), a scramble (to figure out how to report the discovery of the supernova), and an action scene that seems impossibly quaint: A driver races to the nearest town 100 kilometers away to send a telegram and alert the world that 166,000 light-years away, a star has exploded.  

That story opens Crockett’s feature article commemorating the 30th anniversary of the supernova’s discovery. And we’ve brought it to life in video form as well. Ian Shelton, the telescope operator who spotted 1987A on a three-hour exposure he took of the Large Magellanic Cloud, was kind enough to consult with us for the video. He stars in it in clay form, and his voice makes a few guest appearances too.

Our anniversary coverage of 1987A offers a great summary of the importance of the discoveries that came from the stellar explosion. But Science News has been telling the story of SN 1987A for years. In fact, we began telling its story just days after the discovery. News of the explosion reached the International Astronomical Union on a Tuesday; on Wednesday, the day we went to press, Science News editors slipped a mention of it into that week’s issue. The following week’s issue carried a full story. Dozens more followed. We’ve pulled many of those together in the timeline below, which includes links to PDFs of the original magazine articles. Happy reading!

Kate Travis was the digital director of Science News until December 2021, overseeing editorial website operations and other digital endeavors. She has a B.A. in journalism and an M.S. in science and technology journalism, both from Texas A&M University.