- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2007


A massive exploding faraway star — the brightest supernova astronomers have seen — has scientists wondering whether a similar celestial fireworks show may light up the sky much closer to Earth sometime soon.

The discovery, announced yesterday by NASA, drew oohs and aahs for months from the few astronomers who peered through telescopes to see the fuzzy remnants of the spectacular explosion after it was first spotted last fall.

Using a variety of Earth and space telescopes, astronomers found a giant exploding star that they figure has shined about five times brighter than any of the hundreds of supernovae seen before, said discovery team leader Nathan Smith of the University of California at Berkeley. The discovery was first made in September by a graduate student in Texas.

“This one is way above anything else,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s really astonishing.”

Mr. Smith said the star, SN2006gy, “is a special kind of supernova that has never been seen before.”

Observations from the Chandra X-ray telescope helped show that it didn’t become a black hole like other supernovae and skipped a stage of star death.

Unlike other exploding stars, which peak at brightness for a couple of weeks at most, this supernova peaked for 70 days, according to NASA. It has been shining at levels brighter than other supernovae for several months, Mr. Smith said.

Even at 240 million light years away, this star in a distant galaxy does suggest that a similar and relatively nearby star — one 44 trillion miles away — might blow in similar fashion any day now or 50,000 years from now, Mr. Smith said. It wouldn’t threaten Earth, but it would be visible to people in the Southern Hemisphere, he said.

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