Uncovering a Central Mystery: Supernova 1987A

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After decades of study by various space telescopes and ground-based observatories, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has acquired the first piece of direct evidence that a neutron star remains at the center of Supernova 1987A.

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with NASA’s Universe of Learning partners: Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

  • Near-infrared image of Supernova 1987A as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope: NASA, ESA, CSA, Mikako Matsuura (Cardiff University), Richard Arendt (NASA-GSFC, UMBC), Claes Fransson (Stockholm University), Josefin Larsson (KTH)
  • Video zooming into Supernova 1987A: NASA, ESA, Greg Bacon (STScI)
  • Image of Supernova 1987A: Anglo-Australian Observatory
  • Image of the Hubble Space Telescope: NASA
  • Time-lapse video of Supernova 1987A as seen by Hubble: NASA, ESA, Robert P. Kirshner (CfA, Moore Foundation), Peter Challis (CfA)
  • Illustration of the Chandra X-ray Observatory: NASA/CXC/SAO
  • Time-lapse video of Supernova 1987A as seen by Chandra: Salvatore Orlando (INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Palermo; NASA, ESA, and F. Summers and G. Bacon (STScI)
  • Image of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA): Sergio Otarola, ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)
  • Image of Supernova 1987A as seen by ALMA: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), P. Cigan and R. Indebetouw; NRAO/AUI/NSF, B. Saxton; NASA/ESA
  • Image of Supernova 1987A and its surrounding environment as seen by Hubble: NASA, ESA, Robert P. Kirshner (CfA, Moore Foundation), Max Mutchler (STScI), Roberto Avila (STScI)
  • Visualization of a black hole: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Jeremy Schnittman
  • Illustration of a neutron star: INAF - Osservatorio Astronomico di Palerm, Salvatore Orlando
  • Two-panel image of Supernova 1987A as seen by the James Webb Space Telescope: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, C. Fransson (Stockholm University), M. Matsuura (Cardiff University), M. J. Barlow (University College London), P. J. Kavanagh (Maynooth University), J. Larsson (KTH Royal Institute of Technology)

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A close-up section of the universe featuring bright and dim stars, galaxies, and nebulae zooms out to the night sky over a background of trees. Text, Where do we fit in all this? 
What is out there? 
How does the universe work? 
Uncovering a central mystery: Supernova 1987A. 
Wading through a star's remains, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has found a vital piece of evidence to help answer a prevailing question about Supernova 1987A: 
What remains after the original star underwent an explosive death? 
Supernova 1987A is a prime example of the process of science: An ongoing quest to find answers, which leads to discoveries and additional questions. 
Two images. Text, Before Supernova, 1984. During Supernova, 1987. In February 1987, a light so bright that it could be observed by the unaided eye appeared in the sky. 
The light's source would later be known as Supernova 1987A, a nearby explosive event set off by the collapse of a star's core. 
A wide range of space telescopes and ground-based observatories began observing this exciting scene, which is changing on human timescales. Three panels of telescopes and observatories appear. 
A ring of gas around the supernova's center. The text below changes with the image to show its evolution from 1994 to 2016. Over the years, the Hubble Space Telescope tracked changes in the ring of gas surrounding the supernova's center ... 
and the Chandra X-ray Observatory observed the site and noted how the X-ray emission was growing in brightness. Image, the evolving blue X-ray emission. The year below increases from 2000 to 2013. 
Text, On the ground, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array revealed that the hottest part of the supernova remnant was the center. Image, two rectangles with lines stemming from the larger to the smaller. Each contains a red-orange irregular shape of the supernova. 
Text, Though astronomers have studied Supernova 1987A for over 30 years, a major question persists: 
What remains at the center of the supernova? 
What type of star exploded? White dwarf. Massive star. Both stars are shown. Text, What type of massive star exploded? Two lines stem from the star down to red supergiant and blue supergiant. 
Text, What remnant was left behind? Lines go down to a black hole and a neutron star. 
For a long time, astronomers have hypothesized that a neutron star -- the dense core of a collapsed star -- must lie in the center of the scene. A blue-white line cuts diagonally through a bright white sphere surrounded by curved blue lines. 
Text, There's precedent for this theory, as scientists have seen neutron stars among other supernova remnants. Four panels show colorful remnants and stars. 
Text, Astronomers used Webb to acquire mid-infrared images of the supernova, as well as spectral data. Two images of the supernova. Text, Near-infrared. Mid-infrared. 
The observations show a central spot of high-energy emission, the first piece of direct evidence for a neutron star within Supernova 1987A. 
Like all scientific discoveries, this only leads to more exciting questions. The out-of-focus image shows a bright circular star surrounded by fire-colored rings. 
Text, Astronomers continue to study Supernova 1987A while also preparing to catch the next supernova explosion.