Final Death Throes of Supergiant Star Captured in Real Time

If you love to nerd out on astronomy, supernovae have undoubtedly delighted your imagination. Scientists recently witnessed a new breakthrough that will help to fill in the cinema of exploding stars in your mind’s eye. A team of astronomers using two telescope arrays in Hawaii have observed, in real-time, the “dramatic death” of a red supergiant star. In more specific terms, the scientists observed the star’s period of rapid self-destruction and “final death throes.” The star then collapsed and went supernova.

W. M. Keck Observatory/Adam Makarenko

Live Science reported on the breakthrough observation. Astronomers also outlined their findings in a study recently published in The Astrophysical Journal. The team of astronomers were conducting the Young Supernova Experiment, a transient survey of the sky aimed at discovering new cosmic explosions. During this experiment, they observed the red supergiant during its last 130 days before it annihilated itself.

Pan-STARRS, one of the two telescope arrays, first detected the dying massive star in the summer of 2020. Astronomers using the array eyed a “huge amount of light” radiating from the red supergiant. (Red supergiants are aging giant stars that have consumed their cores’ supply of hydrogen fuel.) Then, in the fall of 2020, a supernova from the same point in space lit up the sky.

“This is a breakthrough in our understanding of what massive stars do moments before they die,” Wynn Jacobson-Galán said in a press release. Jacobson-Galán is an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study. He added that “Direct detection of pre-supernova activity in a red supergiant star has never been observed before in an ordinary Type II supernova.”

In the video above is an artist’s interpretation of the red supergiant star transitioning into a Type II supernova. It emits a violent eruption of radiation and gas before collapsing and exploding. A Type II supernova, for reference, specifically results from the rapid collapse and violent explosion of a massive star.

W. M. Keck Observatory/Adam Makarenko

The astronomers note in the press release that the Keck Observatory, the other array used for observation, was key for eyeing the star death throes and explosion. It was “like watching a ticking time bomb,”  said Raffaella Margutti. Margutti is an associate professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley and co-author of the study. He added, “We’ve never confirmed such violent activity in a dying red supergiant star where we see it produce such a luminous emission, then collapse and combust, until now.”

The Keck Observatory notes this observation paves the way for hunting more luminous radiation coming from red supergiants. This gives astronomers another tool to recognize supernovae before they occur. “Detecting more events like [this one] will dramatically impact how we define the final months of stellar evolution, uniting observers and theorists in the quest to solve the mystery on how massive stars spend the final moments of their lives,” Jacobson-Galán added. These detections will also help we space nerds to really Michael Bay up our night-sky daydreams.

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