First solid proof of neutron star leftover from supernova discovered by astronomers

Credit: Hubble Space Telescope WFPC-3/James Webb Space Telescope NIRSpec/J. Larsson

In 1987, astronomers witnessed a stellar explosion, Supernova 1987A, lighting up the skies from a distant galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud.

This event marked the most spectacular supernova observed in 400 years, offering scientists a rare glimpse into the life cycle of stars and the birth of a neutron star.

Fast forward to today, and an international team of astronomers, including Professor Mike Barlow from University College London, has made a groundbreaking discovery using the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

They’ve found the first conclusive evidence of a neutron star at the heart of Supernova 1987A, solving a mystery that has intrigued the scientific community for over three decades.

Supernovae, such as 1987A, occur when stars much larger than our sun collapse under their own weight, ending in a massive explosion.

This process not only lights up the cosmos but also seeds it with the essential elements for life, like carbon, oxygen, and iron. The collapse of these titanic stars can lead to the formation of neutron stars, incredibly dense objects packed with the densest matter known to us, or even black holes.

The story of Supernova 1987A is fascinating. Detected first through the neutrinos it emitted—a type of sub-atomic particle—this supernova gave hints of a neutron star’s birth even before its light reached Earth.

However, despite these early clues, scientists have been unable to confirm the neutron star’s existence due to the dust that shrouded the supernova’s remnants.

Enter the James Webb Space Telescope, with its powerful instruments MIRI and NIRSpec, which observed the heart of the supernova in infrared light.

The JWST detected heavy argon and sulfur atoms in the core area of the explosion, ionized (stripped of their electrons) by intense ultraviolet and X-ray radiation.

Through sophisticated modeling, the research team concluded that this radiation could only come from one of two sources: a cooling neutron star’s hot surface or a pulsar wind nebula created by a rapidly spinning neutron star.

This finding points to a neutron star with a surface temperature of about a million degrees, significantly cooler than the 100 billion degrees it would have had at its birth.

The discovery is a testament to the capabilities of the JWST and the importance of international collaboration in unraveling the mysteries of the universe. It also highlights the value of perseverance in scientific inquiry.

For over 30 years, the nature of the compact object at the center of Supernova 1987A remained elusive. Now, thanks to the JWST’s observations, we have direct evidence of a neutron star’s presence, shedding light on the processes that follow the death of massive stars.

This neutron star, the product of a cataclysmic event observed nearly four decades ago, provides a unique opportunity to study such objects up close. As the material surrounding the neutron star continues to expand, scientists expect to uncover even more about this remarkable remnant of a supernova.

The study not only advances our understanding of neutron stars and the aftermath of supernovae but also underscores the critical role of advanced space telescopes in exploring the cosmos.

The findings from this research, published in the journal Science, contribute significantly to our knowledge of stellar evolution and the role supernovae play in the cosmic cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

They highlight the interconnectedness of the universe, reminding us that the elements necessary for life are forged in the heart of stars and spread through their explosive demise.

The research findings can be found in Science.

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