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💫Grand Spiral Messier 81

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This ground-based image shows the spiral galaxy Messier 81 in its entirety. The image is a combination of exposures from the Isaac Newton Telescope on La Palma (courtesy of Jonathan Irwin) and Digitized Sky Survey 2 images. Supernovae are some of the most violent events in the Universe. For many years astronomers have thought that they occur in either solitary massive stars (Type II supernovae) or in a binary system where the companion star plays an important role (Type I supernovae). However no one has been able to observe any such companion star. It has even been speculated that the companion stars might not survive the actual explosion. The second brightest supernova discovered in modern times, SN 1993J, was found in the beautiful spiral galaxy M81 on 28 March 1993. From archival images of this galaxy taken before the explosion, a red supergiant was identified as the mother star in 1993 - only the second time astronomers have actually seen the progenitor of a supernova explosion (the first was SN 1987A, the supernova that exploded in 1987 in our neighbouring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud). Initially rather ordinary, SN 1993J began to puzzle astronomers as its ejecta seemed too rich in the chemical element helium and instead of fading normally it showed a bizarre sharp increase in brightness. The astronomers realised that a normal red supergiant alone could not have given rise to such a weird supernova.

It was suggested that the red supergiant orbited a companion star that had shredded its outer layers just before the explosion. Ten years after this cataclysmic event, a European/University of Hawaii team of astronomers has now peered deep into the glowing remnants of SN 1993J using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) and the giant Keck telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. They have discovered a massive star exactly at the position of the supernova that is the long sought companion to the supernova progenitor. This is the first supernova companion star ever to be detected and it represents a triumph for the theoretical models. In addition, this observation allows a detailed investigation of the stellar physics leading to supernova explosions. It is now clear that during the last 250 years before the explosion 10 solar masses of gas were torn violently from the red supergiant by its partner. By observing the companion closely in the coming years it may even be possible to detect a neutron star or black hole emerge from the remnants of the explosion 'in real time'. Given the paucity of observations of supernova progenitor systems this result, published in Nature on 8 January 2004, is likely to "be crucial to understanding how very massive stars explode and why we see such peculiar supernovae" according to first author Justyn R. Maund from the University of Cambridge, UK.

Credit: ESA / INT / DSS2

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