X-ray spacecraft could aid supernova hunt

Dec. 10, 2012 at 5:25 PM

LEICESTER, England, Dec. 10 (UPI) -- British astronomers say a study suggests X-ray detectors in space could be the first to witness new supernovae, the signal of the death of massive stars.

Most supernovae are seen with ground-based optical telescopes about ten to twenty days after an initial high energy flash of gamma radiation but if a supernova could be detected more quickly by using a space-based X-ray early warning system, they said, astronomers could monitor the event as it happens and understand the process involved in one of the most violent events in the universe.

Energetic supernovae go hand-in-hand with gamma-ray bursts, but it may be possible to identify X-ray emission signatures of the supernova in its infancy, astronomers said.

"This phenomenon is only seen during the first thousand seconds of an event, and it is challenging to distinguish it from X-ray emission solely from the gamma-ray burst jet," Rhaana Starling of the University of Leicester said in a university release.

Astronomers will still view supernovae with telescopes at their visible-light peak when they are already tens of days old, but for the most energetic examples it may become possible to routinely witness the very moment they are born through X-ray eyes, the researchers said.

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