In what several scientists have termed “winning the astronomy lottery,” Princeton researchers were able for the first time to witness a supernova, or the explosive death of a star, as it happened.
Supernovae happen when the hydrogen fuel powering the star’s nuclear reactor “furnace” runs out. During a star’s lifetime, hydrogen is converted to helium, then to oxygen and carbon, then finally to iron. As this process nears its end, the star’s core becomes so heavy that it collapses on itself and explodes. The explosion sends the matter of the star - carbon, oxygen, iron, nitrogen, and other elements - hurtling into space. It is theorized that many elements on Earth, including those that make up our bodies, originated from supernovae.
As is true with many scientific discoveries, good fortune played a key part in the observation. Researchers were observing the remnants of an old supernova in the galaxy NGC2770 using an X-ray telescope when the new supernova occurred. The initial x-ray blast of a supernova is the earliest event in the explosion, and had never before been captured.
Even in the cosmos, it pays to be looking in the right place at the right time!