VIDEO: An Australian student detects million-year-old hisses from space

The supernova shock front as it pushes material from the blue and red supergiant phases. Artist’s impression. Image: CAASTRO

Astronomers used a telescope in outback Australia at a site free from FM radio interference to peer into the past of a massive nearby star millions of years before it exploded.

The research, led by University of Sydney Phd student Joseph Callingham, has helped fine-tune understanding of stellar explosions.

The scientists have been able to paint a picture of the star’s life long before its death in what was the closest and brightest supernova seen from Earth, known as supernova remnant 1987A, which collapsed 29 years ago.

Much had been known about the immediate past of this star through studying the cosmic ruins resulting from the star’s collapse in 1987 in the neighbouring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud.

However, it was the detection of the very faintest of hisses through low-frequency radio astronomy that has provided the latest insights.

Previously, only the final fraction of the dead star’s multi-million-year-long life, about 0.1% or 20,000 years, had been observable.

This latest research — which has enabled astrophysicists to probe the supernova’s past life millions of years further back than was previously possible — was led by Callingham under supervision from former Young Australian of the Year and former ARC Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics (CAASTRO) director Bryan Gaensler, now at the University of Toronto.

Callingham explains the research in this clip:

The radio astronomers, operating the Murchison Widefield Array in the Western Australian desert, were able to “see” back to when the star was in its long-lasting red supergiant phase.

“Just like excavating and studying ancient ruins that teach us about the life of a past civilisation, my colleagues and I have used low-frequency radio observations as a window into the star’s life,” says Callingham.

Researchers found the red supergiant lost its matter at a slower rate and generated slower winds that pushed into its surrounding environment than was previously assumed.

“Our new data improves our knowledge of the composition of space in the region of supernova 1987A; we can now go back to our simulations and tweak them, to better reconstruct the physics of supernova explosions,” says Callingham.

The latest findings are published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Oxford University Press.

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