Hubble telescope spies massive star set to explode

Peering deep into space, the Hubble Space Telescope captured this image of a somewhat unremarkable eye-shaped nebula. However, in the very near future, this same view could become very remarkable indeed, as the star at the centre of this 'eye' goes off in one of the most powerful explosions in the universe — a supernova.

Closeup of SBW2007 1This nebula, formed by two expanding rings of gas, was discovered roughly 5 years ago, and goes by the rather dull name of [SBW2007] 1. Up close, though, the nebula and the bright star at its centre are anything but dull. The rings were formed when the star — a bright blue supergiant roughly 20 times the mass of our sun — went through a fit of activity and blew off its outer layers of gas. Based on what astronomers have seen in the past, specifically with the star that eventually produced Supernova 1987A, these rings are a tell-tale sign that this supergiant has only a very short time left to live.

Sometime soon, quite possibly within our lifetime, we will be witness to the fiery death of this star. Right now, as we are seeing it, the fusion reactions at its core are balancing the crushing weight of all its matter. However, when those fusion reactions cease, the balance will tip and all that matter will collapse down into the centre of the star — triggering an incredible 'supernova' explosion that will rip it apart.

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Since this star and its nebula are located roughly 20,000 light years away — so we're seeing it as it was 20,000 years ago — this supernova may have already happened, and we're just waiting to 'catch up' to the action.

Once we do 'catch up', this supernova will burn brightly in our skies, for days or possibly even weeks. Since [SBW2007] 1 is located in the Carina Nebula, which is in the constellation Carina, it will only be visible in the southern sky. However, undoubtedly, Hubble, along with all the southern astronomers, will be sharing their views so that the rest of us can enjoy it right along with them.

(Images courtesy: NASA/Hubble, Nathan Smith et al.)

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