Stellar merger may have preceded Supernova 1987A

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Rings produced by a computer model of a stellar merger (left) mimic those of supernova 1987A (right) / Illustration: T Morris/P Podsiadlowski; Image: C Burrows/ESA/STScI/NASA

A merger of two stars and the deadly dance that preceded it produced the distinctive triple ring system of supernova 1987A, a new study says.

SN 1987A exploded in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, on 23 February 1987 and is the nearest supernova observed since the one observed by Johannes Kepler in 1604. The unusual chemistry of SN 1987A has led many astronomers to suspect the progenitor star had merged with another star shortly before the explosion.

Like many stars that have reached the end of their lives, the star that produced SN 1987A is surrounded by a gaseous nebula.

Scientists have had difficulty explaining the bizarre and intricate shapes of these nebulae. Some have suggested the merger process might explain the triple rings of SN 1987A, but it has been unclear whether this was correct.

Now, a pair of astronomers has reproduced the triple rings in a simulation of the two stars spiralling in and merging, providing new evidence that this process produced the puzzling shape. The simulation was produced by Thomas Morris and Philipp Podsiadlowski, both of the University of Oxford, UK.

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