Magazine article Science News

Planet Hunter Also Found Supernovas: Now-Defunct Telescope Captured Five Stellar Explosions

Magazine article Science News

Planet Hunter Also Found Supernovas: Now-Defunct Telescope Captured Five Stellar Explosions

Article excerpt

OXON HILL, MD. -- NASA's premier planet-hunting telescope had another talent: spotting the cataclysmic demise of massive stars. The Kepler space telescope detected at least five supernovas, giving astronomers a rare look at these calamitous explosions from the start.

From May 2009 until May 2013, when a critical piece of equipment failed (SN: 9/21/13, p. 18), the Kepler telescope found at least 3,500 likely planets orbiting other stars. The telescope stared continuously at a single patch of sky, measuring stars' brightness every 30 minutes. Occasionally the scope detected subtle dips in stars' brightness, revealing that planets had crossed in front of them and cast shadows.

In late 2009, astronomer Rob Olling of the University of Maryland in College Park began to wonder what Kepler could do if it stared at galaxies. Like stars, galaxies shine with relatively consistent brightness. But if a massive star exploded, a galaxy's brightness would soar. After Oiling and Maryland colleagues Richard Mushotzky and Ed Shaya submitted a proposal to the Kepler team, the telescope began monitoring 400 galaxies within its field of view.

Kepler data revealed at least five and as many as eight supernovas over a two-year period, Oiling reported January 8 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. In some ways, the data are rudimentary: They consist only of brightness measurements, so astronomers can't figure out details such as the supernovas' structures and the chemical composition of the shrapnel. …

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