This Hubble Space Telescope photograph shows supernova, 1987A, with its three rings. Material from the explosion has begun to hit the inner ring.
Click on image for full size
NASA and STScI
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.
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