Astronomers think they can now predict when a star will explode

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Feb 12, 2013, 3:10 PM EST

Supernovas are among the most powerful astronomical phenomena in the universe, but we've never been able to predict when they'll happen ... until now.

A supernova is, of course, a massive star explosion that happens either when the star takes on too much extra mass or simply collapses after running out of fuel. The resulting explosion is powerful enough to be seen from hundreds of millions of light-years away, and now a team of astronomers claims to have a found a way to see one coming.

Using the combined observational power of the Very Large Array, the Palomar Observatory and NASA's Swift Mission, the team set their sights on a star about 50 times the mass of the sun located 500 million light-years away. The star eventually exploded into a supernova designated SN 2010mc, but before it did it gave the researchers clues that apparently served as precursors to the explosion.

According to data gathered by the team, the star that would become SN 2010mc gave off a smaller but still very powerful explosion about 40 days before it supernovaed. 

This explosion radiated "about a million times more than the energy output of the sun in an entire year," and shot about 1 percent of the mass of our sun out of the star at a speed of about 4.5 million miles per hour. That's a lot of power, but even that explosion was about 5,000 times weaker than the eventual supernova. Still, based on when it occured, the astronomers believe the explosion is actually a predictor of the supernova.

"What is surprising is the short time between the precursor eruption and the eventual supernova explosion; one month is an extremely tiny fraction of the 10-million-year lifespan of a star," said Mansi Kasliwal of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, California, who co-authored a study on the data.

Because of the timing, the researchers believe there's a definite link between the smaller and larger explosions, and probability models show that there's only an 0.1 percent chance that the smaller explosion was random. That means we may have just found a way to see a supernova coming, and that could mean some amazing new observations aren't far behind.

"Our discovery of SN 2010mc shows that we can mark the imminent death of a massive star. By predicting the explosion, we can catch it in the act," Kasliwal said.

(Via Huffington Post)