NASA's Kepler space telescope has captured the spectacular flash of a supernova shockwave, or "shock breakout," exploding 1.2 billion light-years from Earth. The stellar event, which occurs when a dying star collapses and bursts into a brilliant supernova, has never before been captured in visible light until now, Gizmodo reports.
The Kepler probe was deployed by NASA in 2009 to seek out planets beyond our solar system. Today the telescope is also used to study star clusters and supernovae, and in 2011 it recorded the fiery deaths of two colossal red supergiants. Only the larger of the two, a star about 500 times the size of our Sun, displayed a shock breakout that was detected in the Kepler recordings.
According to a study in Astrophysical Journal, a science team led by University of Notre Dame astrophysicist Peter Garnavich came across the event when sifting through mountains of data captured by the telescope from 500 different galaxies over the course of three years. They were on the lookout for evidence of supernovae, which are created when a giant star runs out of the fuel necessary to sustain itself, collapses under its own gravitational pull, and then explodes into a brilliant supernova, which can sometimes grow bright enough to outshine whole galaxies. Before a supernova starts to expand, a super-bright flash is created as the shockwave of the collapsing core breaks past the star's surface. You can see what this process looks like in the animation above.
Understanding how supernovae form is vital to understanding the universe. Heavy elements like silver, nickel, and copper are all derived from such explosions, and according to Steve Howell, project scientist for NASA's Kepler mission, life as we know it wouldn't exist without them.
Header/banner images courtesy of NASA via YouTube