After 37 years, scientists have finally cracked a cosmic “murder mystery” that even Poirot or Miss Marple would have struggled with.
And unraveling what happened to this ‘superstar’ victim required more than just asking the butler a few cutting questions.
In 1987, scientists watched as a star 160,000 light years from Earth exploded in the brightest supernova in 400 years.
What was left behind by the cataclysmic Supernova 1987A has been hidden by thick clouds of dust ever since.
But now, an international team of scientists has used the James Webb telescope to find evidence of a neutron star left behind by the explosion.
Scientists have solved a 37-year-old cosmic ‘murder mystery’ as they reveal what was left after the explosion of Supernova 1987A (pictured)
An international team of researchers has found evidence of a neutron star at the heart of the supernova material. A compact object (pictured) was known to be there, but it had remained hidden behind clouds of debris.
Supernovae are caused by the collapse of stars between eight and ten times the mass of our sun.
As these massive stars collapse in on themselves, the surface contracts so quickly that they create powerful shock waves that cause the outer layers to explode.
The explosions are the source of all the carbon, oxygen, silicon and iron that are vital for the development of life.
Occasionally, this stellar agony leaves behind a core of incredibly hot and dense material that could form a black hole if the star were large enough.
Most commonly, this leaves behind a neutron star, an object no more than 20 kilometers in diameter and composed largely of subatomic particles called neutrons.
Neutron stars are so dense that a sugar cube of neutron star material would weigh a billion tons on Earth, about as much as a mountain.
In February 1987, scientists detected a supernova within the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring dwarf galaxy, burning with the intensity of 100 suns.
Supernova 1987A was so bright that it could be seen from Earth for months and was even visible to the naked eye.
Supernova 1987A was the brightest supernova visible from Earth in more than 400 years. Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud (pictured), a neighboring galaxy, it was so bright that it could even be seen with the naked eye.
This earlier photograph taken by the Hubble Space Telescope shows the ring of hotter material (in white) around a nucleus that is hidden by dust.
Scientists have long suspected that the explosion left behind a neutron star, but so much dust was left behind that even the most powerful telescopes couldn’t confirm it.
But now, a team of researchers says they have found the first evidence that there is a neutron star lurking in the rubble.
BBC sky at night Presenter Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock said the investigation team had “solved a murder mystery”.
And he added: “It is about the death of a star and the mystery has been what lies in the veils of dust that surround what remains.”
Using two instruments aboard the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a team of scientists observed the infrared wavelengths of light coming from the supernova area.
They discovered that there were heavy argon and sulfur atoms whose outer electrons had been stripped away.
By modeling how these atoms could have gotten there, the researchers discovered that they could only have been created by a neutron star.
Researchers used the James Webb Space Telescope to observe the infrared radiation emitted by the ejected material. They found the presence of argon (pictured) and sulfur atoms that had been stripped of their outer electrons.
Professor Mike Barlow, a UCL astronomer and co-author of the study, said: “Our data can only be equated with a neutron star as the energy source for that ionizing radiation.”
Investigators have two theories as to how this may have happened.
Professor Barlow explained: “This radiation can be emitted from the million-degree surface of the hot neutron star, as well as by a pulsar wind nebula that could have been created if the neutron star was spinning rapidly and carrying charged particles. around it”.
When neutron stars collapse in on themselves, they heat up to billions of degrees at the surface.
Researchers believe the argon and sulfur atoms could only have been stripped of their electrons by a neutron star hidden at the center of Supernova 1987A (pictured).
As they cool, this energy is emitted into the universe in the form of massive amounts of ultraviolet and X-ray radiation.
But if a neutron star spins, it will actually drag “winds” of relativistic particles around it that could interact with the surrounding supernova material.
An example of this type of force can be seen in the Crab Nebula, which is the remnant of a supernova observed by Chinese astronomers in 1054.
In any case, scientists now have a strong indication that there must be a neutron star.
Professor Barlow added: “The mystery of whether a neutron star is hiding in dust has raged for more than 30 years and it is exciting that we have solved it.”
The Crab Nebula (pictured) is a good example of how a rotating neutron star can create a “wind” of particles that interact with the supernova material.
Lead author of the paper, Professor Claes Fransson of Stockholm University, said: “Thanks to the superb spatial resolution and excellent instruments at JWST, we have been able, for the first time, to probe the center of the supernova and what was created. over there”.
Scientists suspected there might be a neutron star because, on February 23, 1987, they detected a pulse of neutrinos passing through the Earth.
These fast-moving, weakly interacting particles arrived on Earth a day before the supernova was first seen and potentially indicated that a neutron star had formed.
This was the first supernova detected for its neutrinos, which account for 99.9 percent of all the energy emitted during the explosion.
Although a large number of neutrinos were emitted, three detectors on Earth only managed to capture about 20 in their path.
Professor Fransson added that scientists had long thought that a neutron star was responsible for this pulse, but “they had to wait until JWST could verify the predictions.”