In the ever-changing cosmic goo that is the universe, the biggest stars end their lives in enormous explosions called supernovae. These bursts are so bright that they are visible across vast distances—and a new one just appeared in the night sky here on Earth. If you turn your telescope toward the constellation Ursa Major, you may get a rare chance to see a freshly exploded star.
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The supernova is located in one of the spiral arms of the Pinwheel Galaxy, also known as Messier 101, which is 25 million light-years away from Earth, according to NASA. As Space.com reports, the supernova, called SN 2023ixf, has been the subject of astronomers’ eyes for the last few days.
According to Sky & Telescope, the supernova appeared on Friday and should be viewable with a 4.5-inch telescope. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope began studying it yesterday, and the explosion should remain visible for a few more months, NASA says. For backyard astronomers interested in scoring a glimpse, the Pinwheel Galaxy is located above Alkaid—the star making up the end of the Big Dipper’s handle—in the night sky.
The deceased star was likely many times larger than our own Sun, according to Space.com—so much so that, if it replaced our own Sun, it would have been more than the size of Mars’s orbit. A large-enough star will go supernova when it eventually runs out of the internal fuel that sustains its nuclear fusion. The star’s own gravity forces it to collapse upon itself and release energy as a massive explosion. The final death blow is the star’s transformation into a neutron star or a black hole.
A star’s lifetime is millions to billions of years, so witnessing the death of one is truly an exciting moment. Earlier this year, astronomers found evidence of a binary star system that will eventually create a kilonova, or an explosion that is thought to produce bursts of gamma rays and large amounts of gold and platinum. The system is home to a neutron star and a massive star that is in the process of going supernova, at which point it will also become a neutron star. Eventually, those two neutron stars will collide, producing the kilonova.