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Astronomers spy supernova shockwave

"We are really probing the process of blowing up," astronomer Brad Tucker said

By Brooks Hays

ACTON, Australia, March 22 (UPI) -- For the first time, astronomers have documented the early moments of a supernova -- capturing the shockwave created by a collapsing stellar core.

"It's like the shockwave from a nuclear bomb, only much bigger, and no one gets hurt," Brad Tucker, an astronomer at the Australian National University, said in a news release.

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When a dying star or star system runs out of fuel, the core collapses in on itself and violently explodes. In this instance, two stellar cores -- a binary system -- collapsed and exploded.

Scientists have long studied supernovas. Their incredible brightness -- bright enough to be seen in faraway galaxies -- make them relatively easy to spot. Until now, researchers' understanding of the outset of a supernova has been limited.

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The latest imagery reveals for the first time the early stages of a supernova, a process that forges the universe's heavier elements -- silver, uranium, argon, nickel and many others.

As stellar cores collapse, energy bounces back and radiates toward the star's surface with tremendous force, generating the nuclear fusion that turns lighter elements into heavier ones.

Astronomers only observed a shockwave in the smaller of the two exploding stars, a star with a radius 270 times the sun. Researchers didn't see a shockwave in its larger companion.

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"The star was so large that the shockwave did not travel all the way to the surface," Tucker said.

Their observations were detailed in a newly published paper.

Researchers hope further analysis of these fresh observations will reveal how stellar size and composition influence the earliest stages of a supernova.

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"We are really probing the process of blowing up," Tucker said. "Supernovae made the heavy elements we need to survive, such as iron, zinc and iodine, so we are really learning about how we are created."

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