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Webb Unveils Clues Pointing to Neutron Star at the Core of Supernova Remnant.

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The NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope has achieved a groundbreaking discovery, providing compelling evidence of emission from a neutron star at the location of the recently observed supernova, SN 1987A. Situated 160,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, SN 1987A graced Earth with its visibility in 1987, marking the first naked-eye observable supernova since 1604. This cosmic event has granted astronomers a rare opportunity to track the supernova’s evolution and unravel the mysteries of its remnants.

Identified as a type II, core-collapse supernova, SN 1987A’s core, now compacted, is believed to have birthed either a neutron star or a black hole. While hints of a neutron star have been detected before, the James Webb Space Telescope has now captured the effects of high-energy emission from this young neutron star, marking a significant milestone in our cosmic understanding.

Astronomy, often focused on phenomena spanning tens of thousands of years, encounters a unique perspective with supernovae—the explosive culmination of massive stars’ life cycles. Unlike processes unfolding over millennia, supernovae exhibit rapid outbursts within hours, reaching peak brightness in mere months. The remnants of these cataclysmic events undergo swift evolution over subsequent decades. Consequently, supernovae present an exceptionally rare opportunity for astronomers to observe and study a pivotal astronomical process unfolding in real-time, providing valuable insights into the dynamic nature of the cosmos.


The supernova SN 1987A was first observed from Earth in February 1987, with its peak brightness in May of that year, marked a celestial spectacle. Despite the 160,000-year gap since the actual supernova event due to its distance from Earth, SN 1987A became the first supernova visible to the naked eye since Kepler’s Supernova in 1604. Adding to its significance, approximately two hours prior to the visible light observation, three global observatories detected a burst of neutrinos lasting a few seconds. The connection between the neutrino burst and SN 1987A provided crucial insights, refining our comprehension of core-collapse supernovae.


For years, astronomers have diligently sought evidence of a compact object at the heart of the expanding material remnant . Recent years have provided indications pointing towards the presence of a neutron star within the remnant. While observations of considerably older supernova remnants, like the Crab Nebula, substantiate the existence of neutron stars within such remnants, direct evidence of a neutron star in the aftermath of SN 1987A—or any recent supernova explosion—eluded observation until now.


Claes Fransson, the lead author from Stockholm University, sheds light on the significance of the discovery: “From theoretical models of SN 1987A, the ten-second burst of neutrinos observed just before the supernova implied that a neutron star or black hole was formed in the explosion. But we have not observed any compelling signature of such a newborn object from any supernova explosion. With Webb, we have now found direct evidence for emission triggered by the newborn compact object, most likely a neutron star.


Webb initiated science observations in July 2022, and the research leading to this discovery was conducted on July 16, making the SN 1987A remnant among the first objects scrutinized by the telescope. The team utilized the Medium Resolution Spectrograph (MRS) mode of Webb’s MIRI instrument, a development in which team members played a pivotal role. The MRS, functioning as an Integral Field Unit (IFU), captures both imaging and spectral data simultaneously.This innovative instrument provides a spectrum at each pixel, enabling detailed spectroscopic analysis. The spectral examination of the results unveiled a robust signal originating from ionized argon in the center of the expelled material surrounding the original site of SN 1987A, offering a unique glimpse into the aftermath of this historic supernova.


Subsequent observations using Webb’s NIRSpec (Near Infrared Spectrograph) IFU mode, operating at shorter wavelengths, unveiled the presence of more heavily ionized chemical species, including five times ionized argon—a state where argon atoms have lost five of their 18 electrons. The formation of such ions demands highly energetic photons, leading to the conclusion that a source of high-energy radiation exists at the center of the SN 1987A remnant. Claes Fransson elaborated, stating, “To create these ions that we observed in the ejecta, it was clear that there had to be a source of high-energy radiation in the center of the SN 1987A remnant. In the paper, we discuss different possibilities, finding that only a few scenarios are likely, and all of these involve a newly born neutron star.


Additional observations of SN 1987A are slated for this year, employing both Webb and ground-based telescopes. The research team anticipates that ongoing investigations will offer further insights into the intricacies of this supernova remnant. These observations hold the promise of refining existing models and enhancing our understanding not only of SN 1987A but also of core-collapse supernovae in general.


Unveiling the Nature of Type II Supernovae.


Type II supernovae, distinct from Type Ia supernovae by the presence of hydrogen in their spectra, arise from the core-collapse of massive stars with 8–25 times the mass of our Sun. This cosmic spectacle is fueled by gravitational potential energy, producing a cascade of neutrinos. Unlike other supernova mechanisms, core-collapse events release a staggering 99.6% of their energy in the form of elusive neutrinos, with the remainder manifesting as kinetic energy and a minute fraction as light. Despite their feeble interaction with matter, neutrinos play a crucial role in the association with observed phenomena such as the blast from SN 1987A.


Unveiling the Enigma of Compact Objects.


Compact objects in astronomy, comprising white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes, are remnants of stellar evolution with extreme density. The neutron star’s core, for instance, is so condensed that a mere teaspoon of its material would weigh over three billion tons, showcasing the extraordinary nature of these celestial remnants.


The Intricacies of Ionisation.


Ionisation, a fundamental process in astronomy, occurs when an atom or molecule gains or loses electrons, resulting in an electric charge. This phenomenon arises from collisions with particles or exposure to ionising radiation, such as X-rays and specific ultraviolet radiation, contributing to the dynamic interactions within cosmic environments.

The Crucial Role of Models in Astronomical Understanding.


Models, simplified theoretical representations grounded in mathematical, chemical, and physical principles, serve as indispensable tools for predicting and explaining astronomical observations. In the realm of astronomy, both models and observations collaboratively contribute to refining our understanding of celestial phenomena, fostering continuous advancements in our comprehension of the cosmos.

Webb Unveils Clues Pointing to Neutron Star at the Core of Supernova Remnant.

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