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What is a Supernova?

A supernova (pl. supernovae) is a stellar explosion which produces an extremely bright

object made of plasma that declines to invisibility over weeks or months. It would take 10
billion years for the Sun to produce the energy output of an ordinary Type II supernova.
The Sun is notably too small to ever become a supernova—rather it will become a White
Dwarf (see Chandrasekhar limit).

There are several different types of supernovae and two possible routes to their

A massive star may cease to generate fusion energy from fusing the nuclei of atoms in its
core. The massive carbon core gets contracted because the force of gravity increases,
making the star smaller and smaller. Inside the nucleus the temperature might well be
around 600 million Kelvin degrees, and to this point, fusioned carbon gets covered and
replaced by magnesium in a nuclear chain reaction.

When the carbon gets to the surface a new cycle starts. Gravitational contraction and
increase in temperature encourages more nuclear reactions, producing more elements
heavier elements, like iron in the core of the star. This process continues until the entire
nucleus is iron.

To this point, iron stops chain reactions and the star collapses because it requires more
energy that what is available. The real fate of the collapse comes in the last moment
because the star cannot be compressed any more and by any force. It is then that the star
explodes as a supernova, briefly outshining the entire galaxy.

The force of collapsing is 10 million more luminous than our sun. All of these liberations
that momentarily come with the explosion last about ¾ of a second, with the potential
end result of the formation of a neutron star or a black hole.

Alternatively, a white dwarf star may accumulate material from a companion star until it
nears its Chandrasekhar limit and undergoes runaway nuclear fusion in its interior,
completely disrupting it. This second type of supernova is distinct from a surface
thermonuclear explosion on a white dwarf, which is called a nova. The resulting
explosion expels much or all of the stellar material with great force. In either type of
supernova, it is thought, the majority of the energy liberated is in invisible form.

The explosion drives a blast wave into the surrounding space, liberating materials such as
carbon, oxygen and iron, which will later be incorporated in future stars and forming the
supernova remnant. One very good example of this is the remnant of SN 1054, also
known as the Crab Nebula.

"Nova" is Latin for "new", referring to what appears to be a very bright new star shining
in the celestial sphere; the prefix "super" distinguishes this from an ordinary nova, which
also involves a star increasing in brightness, though to a lesser extent and through a
different mechanism.

The earliest recorded supernova, SN 185, was viewed by Chinese astronomers in 185 CE.
A widely-observed supernova, SN 1054, produced the Crab Nebula. Supernovae SN 1572
and SN 1604, the last to be observed in the Milky Way galaxy, had notable impacts on the
development of astronomy in Europe.

Since the development of the telescope, the field of supernova discovery has expanded to
other galaxies, beginning first with the 1885 observation of supernova S Andromedae in
the Andromeda galaxy. These events provide important information on cosmological
distances. During the twentieth century, successful supernova models for each type of
supernovae were developed, and the role of supernova in the star formation process is
now increasingly understood.

Most recently it has been discovered that the most distant Type Ia supernovae appeared
dimmer than expected. This has provided evidence that the expansion of the universe
may be accelerating.

The explosion of supernovae in other galaxies cannot be predicted with any meaningful
accuracy. When they are discovered, they are already in progress. Most uses for
supernovae — as standard candles, for instance — require an observation of their peak
luminosity. It is therefore important to discover them well before they reach their
maximum. Amateur astronomers, who greatly outnumber professional astronomers, have
played an important role in finding supernovae, typically by looking at some of the closer
galaxies through an optical telescope and comparing them to earlier photographs.
Towards the end of the 20th century, astronomers increasingly turned to computer-
controlled telescopes and CCDs for hunting supernovae. While such systems are popular
with amateurs, there are also larger installations like the Katzman Automatic Imaging

Supernova searches fall into two regimes: high redshift and low redshift, with the
boundary falling somewhere around a redshift of z = 0.2. High redshift searches for
supernovae involve the observation of (usually) Type Ia supernova light curves for use as
standard or calibrated candles to generate Hubble diagrams and make cosmological
predictions. At low redshift, supernova spectroscopy is more practical than at high
redshift, and these data can be used to study the physics and environments of supernovae.
Low redshift observations also anchor the low redshift end of the Hubble curve. Chandra
space telescope detects supernova remnants by using X-rays, because the majority of
residue is visible in this type of spectra.

Supernova discoveries are reported to the International Astronomical Union's Central

Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams which sends out a circular with the name it assigns to
it. The name is formed by the year of discovery, immediately followed by a one or two-
letter designation. The first 26 supernovae of the year get an upper case letter from A to
Z. Afterward, pairs of lower-case letters are used, starting with aa, ab, and so on.
Professional and amateur astronomers currently find between 300 and 400 supernovae a
year. For example, the last supernova of 2005 was SN 2005nc, indicating that it was the
341st supernova found in 2005 (a record year, in fact).

Four historical supernovae are known simply by the year they occurred: SN 1006, 1054,
1572 (Tycho's Nova), and 1604 (Kepler's Star); starting with 1885, the letters are used,
even if there was only one supernova that year (e.g. SN 1885A, 1907A, etc.) —this last
happened with SN 1947A. The standard abbreviation "SN" is an optional prefix.

As part of the attempt to understand supernovae, astronomers have classified them

according to the lines of different chemical elements that appear in their spectra. The first
element for a division is the presence or absence of a line from hydrogen. If a supernova's
spectrum contains a hydrogen Balmer line, it is classified Type II, otherwise it is Type I.
Among those groups, there are subdivisions according to the presence of other lines and
the shape of the light curve of the supernova.

Source: under the search code: Supernova

Date: Thursday, November 30, 2006.