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May 22, 2014 10:24 AM EDT

Supernova Explosion Study Analyzes Direct Evidence of the Death of a Massive Wolf-Rayet Star


Astronomers have gained their most direct evidence of a massive supernova to date, but of a star far more massive than our own sun.

According to, the new study, published in the journal Nature, analyzes such stars known as Wolf-Rayets, which can be more than 20 times as massive as the sun and five times as hot. Comparatively, the sun 330,000 times as massive as Earth and takes up 99.86 percent of the solar system's total mass.

"Newly developed observational capabilities now enable us to study exploding stars in ways we could only dream of before. We are moving towards real-time studies of supernovae," study lead author Avishay Gal-Yam, an astrophysicist in the Weizmann Institute's Department of Particle Physics and Astrophysics, said in a news release.

The astronomers believe these Wlolf-Rayet stars have the most powerful explosions in the universe and the resulting supernovas can momentarily outshine various galaxies.

"This is the smoking gun. For the first time, we can directly point to an observation and say that this type of Wolf-Rayet star leads to this kind of Type IIb supernova," study co-author Peter Nugent, head of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory team, said in the release.

Published Thursday, the astronomers' study detailed the explosion of the Type IIb supernova, examining it in real time. When the star's core ran out of fuel, it collapsed on itself, creating a super-dense nugget, followed by a massive explosion in just a fraction of a second. What was left behind was either a neutron star or a black hole.

"This discovery was totally shocking, it opens up a whole new research area for us," Nugent said. "With our largest telescopes you might have a chance of getting a spectrum of a Wolf-Rayet star in the nearest galaxies to our Milky Way, perhaps 4 million light years away. SN 2013cu is 360 million light years away-further by almost factor of 100."

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