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December 3, 2009

Massive Supernova reveals a Supermassive Star

Type II supernova are the result of a massive star running out of fuel at the end of its life. Normally what is leftover is a neutron star or black hole, the super compact remnant of the dead star. I had always assumed that as the mass of the star went up, you just got a more massive object leftover. Astronomers have found a star so massive that nothing remains after it dies.

Located in a nearby galaxy, this supernova lasted 50-100 times longer than its typical counterpart. "It was much brighter, and it was bright for a very long time," said researcher Paolo Mazzali of the Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Germany. "We could observe this thing almost two years after it was discovered, where you normally don't see anything anymore." The star is estimated to have been 200 solar masses, the biggest star ever found. Astronomers were beginning to doubt that stars this massive could even exist.

This a wonderful example of observation confirming prediction. It was hypothesized that if these massive supernova existed, they would have a specific signature. This supernova matched that signature. Because this star was so massive it went supernova early. When smaller stars (but at still least 2 solar masses) would be fusing iron in their cores, this star created matter anti-matter pairs that set off a nuclear chain reaction. It is always exciting when astronomers discover a new type of object, especially when those objects involve a really big explosion.