Watch NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope watch a distant star die, explode and fade in rare, colorful detail

  • NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope picked up a star that exploded and died 11 billion years ago.
  • A massive group of galaxies distorted the light from this supernova into three reflections.
  • The three imprints show different colored phases of the supernova explosion.

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope watched a distant star die, explode and fade in rare detail.

The star died more than 11 billion years ago, when the universe was less than a fifth of its current age of 13.8 billion years, but the light from its violent explosion just reached Earth. This is the first time astronomers have looked closely at a supernova so early in the history of the universe.

The Hubble telescope watched the star collapse, expel its outer layers in a violent explosion, and then cool. Based on the supernova’s brightness and cooling speed, scientists estimated that this star was 500 times larger than the Sun. The researchers’ paper was published in the journal Nature on Wednesday.

The image shows a faint supernova in different colors

Three different supernova reflections, spotted by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA, European Space Agency, STScI, Wenlei Chen (UMN), Patrick Kelly (UMN), Hubble Frontier Fields

“You have the massive star, the core collapses, it shocks, it heats up, and then you see it cold over the course of a week. I think that’s probably one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,” said Patrick Kelly, study leader and associate professor in the University of Physics and Astronomy Minnesota, in a NASA news release.

This is a rare sight, especially in the very early part of the universe, where supernova explosion and cooling occur over only a few hours or days.

Multicolored supernova faces twisted in spacetime

Hubble supernova images in different stages

Hubble’s various observations of the supernova

NASA, European Space Agency, STScI, Wenlei Chen (UMN), Patrick Kelly (UMN), Hubble Frontier Fields

Hubble discovered this supernova through a gravitational lens. This is what happens when a group of distant galaxies is so massive that it distorts spacetime, bending and amplifying the light from the distant stars that lie behind it. This creates mirror images of those stars, which are reflected back on us.

In this case, the gravitational lens created three images of the same supernova at different time points. That’s because the light from the explosion took three different paths around the massive galactic cluster. The paths had different lengths, so the light arrived at different times, reflecting images from three different stages in the death of the star.

This is why the three reflections are different colors – the supernova’s temperature changed rapidly over the course of a week, and so did its color. In the very hot early stages, the star appeared blue. When he cooled, he looked even redder.

The Hubble image shows multiple colors from the supernova

The different colors of a cooled supernova in three different stages of its evolution.

NASA, European Space Agency, STScI, Wenlei Chen (UMN), Patrick Kelly (UMN), Hubble Frontier Fields

“It is very rare to detect a supernova at a very early stage, because this stage is so short,” said Wenley Chen, a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota who has studied this supernova.

“It only lasts for hours to a few days, and it can be easily missed even for close detection. At the same exposure, we can see a series of images – like the multiple faces of a supernova,” Chen said.

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