ROSAT first detection of X-rays from SN1987A
Credit: Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik and theROSAT Mission

First X-rays from SN 1987A

Supernovae explosions are extraordinary occurences. In these explosions a star blows itself apart by (paradoxically) collapsing in on itself. The collapsed part of the star forms a neutron star or black hole, while the exploded part forms a cloud of hot gas and dust enriched in heavy elements like carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, silicon, iron, and others, all important for the formation of rocky planets and life. Typically a few dozen supernovae may be detected each year, but since they mostly occur in distant galaxies, they are difficult to study in detail. X-ray emission from nearby supernovae is of great interest to astronomers, since it allows astronomers to see exactly how the explosion develops, and in principle give the astronomers the ability to view the evolution of a neutron star or black hole from infancy. On February 23, 1987, a massive blue star in the Large Magellanic Cloud exploded. Astronomers eagerly awaited the first detection of the X-ray emission from this explosion, an event known as SN 1987A, but it was not until mid 1991 that X-rays from the supernova were detected. The image above shows the first positive detection of the supernova, obtained by the ROSAT Position Sensitive Proportional Counter imager. The position of the SN 1987A is marked by the two tickmarks. The supernova appears very faint in this first image, but recently the supernova has brightened in X-rays, and new observations with the Chandra observatory have shown an X-ray bright ring produced by the explosion.

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Page Author: Dr. Michael F. Corcoran
Last modified August 5, 2001