Hubble telescope spots doomed star that is the 'Rosetta stone' of supernovas

The Hubble Space Telescope captured a new supernova that could be used to decode other star explosions.
Astronomers believe that NASA's telescope captured the star early in its "cataclysmic death" phase. This may help them to develop an early warning system that could be used for other stars about to explode.

Scientists refer to the event as SN 2020fqv as the "Rosetta Stone for supernovas". This is a reference the Rosetta Stone which has the same text in three different scripts. It allows historians to read Egyptian hieroglyphs. The stone was written in ancient Greek script which is well-known by scholars. It also contains two forms of Egyptian script which are not well understood at the time.

The stone itself, which dates back to around 2,200 years ago was discovered by accident by soldiers serving in Napoleon's army in Egypt. You can find it in London's British Museum today. The Hubble discovery investigators acknowledged that the term "Rosetta Stone", which is often used as a metaphor to decipher information, is not a good description of the new cosmic work.

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"This is the first-time we've been in a position to verify the mass using these three methods for one supernova and all of them have been consistent," Samaporn Tinyanont (a NASA graduate student in Astronomy) stated in a NASA statement.

"Now, we can move forward using these various methods and combining them because there are many other supernovas in which we have masses from one or the other method."

SN 2020fqv was discovered among the Butterfly galaxies. These are a pair of spiral galaxies that are approximately 60 million light-years from Earth. They are located in the constellation Virgo. The Zwicky Transient Facility at Palomar Observatory in San Diego in California discovered the supernova for the first time in April 2020.

The supernova was also visible from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, (TESS), which has the primary mission to find nearby planets other than our own. Hubble joined the multi-national observatory star party soon afterward, along with several ground-based telescopes.

Hubble's keen eyes enabled the observatory to see the material near the star, called circumstellar matter, within a few hours of the explosion. Astronomers believe that this material can be studied to learn more about the star's last year.

Tinyanont stated that "we rarely get to inspect this very close-in circumstellar matter because it is only visible for very short times and we usually don’t start observing supernovas until at least a few weeks after they explode." "We were able to make extremely rapid observations with Hubble for this supernova. This gave us unprecedented coverage of the area right next to the star which exploded.

Hubble has an archive of observations from this star that dates back to the 1990s. TESS observations were added to the image series by astronomers in the days prior to the explosion.

The mass of the exploding stars was then calculated by scientists using three methods: comparing observations to theoretical models, using data from an archival Hubble image (which was used to exclude higher-mass stars in Hubble's model) and measuring the amount oxygen in the supernova which is a proxy of mass. The results of all three methods were consistent, with an estimate of 14-15 times our sun's mass.

Betelgeuse is a famous red supergiant, which is now in its late stages and has put on some shows in the past year. Ryan Foley, an Astrophysicist from the University of California Santa Cruz, co-authored this article. He said he doesn’t believe Betelgeuse is about to explode but that SN 2020fqv would help us build our star database.

Foley stated that Hubble's explosion behavior and other observatories could be considered a warning sign. If you notice a star shaking around, acting up, it's worth paying more attention to what's happening before it explodes. We'll learn more about the star's last years as we discover more supernovae.

The paper was published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society on Thursday, Oct. 21.

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