What is a Supernova and Why Has One Just Blown the Minds of Physicists?

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Let’s be honest, not many people know what a supernova even is.

I certainly didn’t. So I went around asking people what they thought it was. Some know it as a television show; “Rockstar Supernova”. Some said that it has to do with old fashioned kitchen floors, or cleaning products. Another said that it has to do with medicine. And then there were those who said it has to do with space. Or confidently: “It’s a star”.

Let me inform you however, that it is not a rockstar, a cleaning detergent or a pill. It actually has to do with space and stars exploding! Reading up about this topic has left me feeling awestruck at just how big the universe is, how massive other stars and planets are, and how very, very little I know about what is actually going on out there.

The dealings of stars, planets and space has always made me feel a little uneasy and out of my depth. It makes me feel like a teeny tiny human being with no control of absolutely anything that is going on in the world, and most certainly in the universe. Just as one telescope is built, that’s big enough to see into a galaxy, a new galaxy is discovered. It seems to be an endless pool of discovery that keeps blowing our minds. We actually cannot grasp how big and how powerful the universe is and somehow, we are safely kept on a planet that has all the perfect conditions for us to thrive.

What is a Supernova?

The word “supernova” was coined by Walter Baade and Fritz Zwicky in 1931. The word “nova” means “new” and “super” as a prefix distinguishes it from ordinary novae which are apparently less luminous. An ordinary nova is a star that suddenly increases in brightness but slowly returns to its original state.

A supernova is can be basically defined as a rare astronomical event that occurs during the last stellar (relating to stars) evolutionary stages of a massive star’s life. Its destruction is marked by monumental explosion. A new star suddenly appears in this phenomenon which fades from sight slowly over the course of a couple weeks or months. Statistically, we should be able to see three supernovae every century. Three supernovae were seen by the naked-eye in the Milky Way over the last thousand years.

During its maximum brightness, the supernova produces enough energy to briefly outshine an entire output of a galaxy. The catastrophe of the explosion causes it to expel all of its stellar material away from itself at a speed of up to 30,000km/s. That’s 10% of the speed of light!

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