Karoo telescope helps spot biggest explosion in human history

2016-01-15 10:49
The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) in Sutherland. (Janus Brink, SALT)

The Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) in Sutherland. (Janus Brink, SALT)

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Johannesburg - About 3.8 billion light years away, a star has exploded with a brightness of 570 billion times that of our own sun.

If that fails to impress you, consider that this is almost 20 times the output of the 100 billion stars that comprise our Milky Way galaxy.

This supernova, which is being regarded as one of the most powerful explosions in human history, was unveiled through a collaboration of several telescopes. However, a major contribution came from the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) in Sutherland, a small Karoo town in the Northern Cape.

To prove the record-breaking nature of the supernova, its distance had to be established. This was done with spectroscopic observations taken by SALT.

“Upon seeing the spectral signatures from SALT and realising that we had discovered the most powerful supernova yet, I was too excited to sleep the rest of the night," Subo Dong, an astronomer and a professor at the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics (KIAA) at Peking University said in a statement.


An artist's impression of the superluminous supernova ASASSN-15lh as it would appear from a planet located 10 000 light years away in the host galaxy of the supernova. (Jin Ma, Beijing Planetarium)

A study on the explosion, called ASASSN-15lh, was published on Friday.

“ASASSN-15lh is the most powerful supernova discovered in human history... The explosion’s mechanism and power source remain shrouded in mystery because all known theories meet serious challenges in explaining the immense amount of energy ASASSN-15lh has radiated," Dong said.

ASASSN-15lh was first glimpsed in June 2015 by twin telescopes with 14-centimetre diameter lenses in Cerro Tololo, Chile. These two telescopes sweep the skies to detect suddenly appearing objects like ASASSN-15lh that are very bright, but are too far away for human observers to notice.

A spectrum taken at the 2.5 metre Irénée du Pont telescope in Chile suggested that ASASSN-15lh might indeed be a superluminous supernova.

To know for sure how luminous ASASSN-15lh was, a measurement of its distance was required. This was determined with spectroscopic observations by Dong’s colleague Saurabh Jha of Rutgers University using SALT.

To clear up where exactly ASASSN-15lh is located, as well as numerous other mysteries regarding it, the research team are being given time this year on the infamous Hubble Space Telescope.

With Hubble, Dong and colleagues will obtain the most detailed views yet of the aftermath of ASASSN-15lh’s record-breaking explosion.


Images showing the host galaxy before (Left) the explosion of ASASSN-15lh, and afterwards (Right) when the supernova actually outshines the whole host galaxy. (The Dark Energy Survey, B Shappee and the ASAS-SN team)

Curves showing the changing brightness over weeks and months of various supernovae, with the newly discovered ASASSN-15lh in black at the top. That single exploding star, at its peak, shone as bright as hundreds of billions of Suns. The previous record-holding supernova named iPTF13ajg is shown in blue. The brightness of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is also shown for comparison. (The ASAS-SN team)

Read more on:    salt  |  kimberley  |  space  |  astronomy  |  good news

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