Hopkins telescope views supernova


Telescopes on board the shuttle Endeavour yesterday captured data on iron molecules blasted into space by a supernova explosion in 1006, and on carbon blown from a much smaller stellar blast first observed last month.

"We're getting good data on just about every target we look at now," said Dr. Arthur Davidsen, principal investigator for the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope, who monitored the data from the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

A supernova is the final explosion of a huge star at least 10 times the mass of the sun. Carbon, iron and other heavy elements created in the

star are sent flying out into space, to become the stuff from which new stars, planets and people are made.

Supernovae appear briefly as very bright stars, sometimes visible in daylight. Centuries later, their debris is still visible as expanding nebulas.

Yesterday's observations included a look at remnants of supernova Schweitzer-Middleditch. It was named for its modern discoverers rather than the 11th-century Chinese observers who saw the actual explosion.

By focusing HUT's spectrograph on starlight shining through Schweitzer-Middleditch's nebula, astronomers hoped to find evidence that a portion of the star's ultraviolet radiation was absorbed en route to Earth by iron in the supernova's debris.

"This was a type of star that should have produced a large fraction of a solar mass worth of iron," Dr. Davidsen said. (One "solar mass" is equal to the mass of our sun.)

"We just got a spectrum that was quite good" and the analysis of the light appeared to show iron in the nebula.

Endeavour's telescopes were also aimed yesterday at an exploding star called Nova Aquilae, 3,000 to 6,000 light years from Earth. Light from its explosion first reached Earth Feb. 7.

Much smaller than supernovae, novas occur when gases from a star like our sun are pulled away by a companion star called a white dwarf. "Matter shed by the normal star swirls down onto the small white dwarf," Dr. Davidsen said. "It can get denser and hotter until it undergoes a nuclear explosion," briefly brightening the star by a factor of 10,000.

Observations yesterday revealed evidence of nitrogen and carbon blasted from Nova Aquilae, he said.

Data from both objects will add to scientists' understanding of the life and death of stars.

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