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Supernova - Windows to the Universe

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This Hubble Space Telescope photograph shows supernova, 1987A, with its three rings. Material from the explosion has begun to hit the inner ring.
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Exploding Stars

Stars don't last forever. Occasionally, a star bigger than our Sun will end its life in a huge explosion, called a supernova.

This explosion happens because the center, or core, of the star collapses in less than a second. The outer layers of the star are blown off in the explosion at speeds up to 9600 km/s (6000 miles/s), scattering heavy elements through space. Shock waves surge outward through space even faster, at up to 32,000 km/s (20,000 miles/s), and occasionally causing the initiation of new star formation regions. The contracting core that remains consists mainly of neutrons. There are many beautiful images of supernova remnants, the expanding shell of gas made up of the outer layers of the original star.

Supernovae last one or two years, and can shine brighter than a whole galaxy for this time. What happens to the star after the supernova depends on how big it is. If a star is only a few times bigger than the Sun, the core will shrink into a tiny neutron star only a few miles across. If the star was much bigger than the Sun, the core will shrink down to a black hole.

Last modified May 6, 2008 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF