Stars issue warnings when they are about to explode in a supernova

Astronomers at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) and the University of Montpellier have developed an “early warning system” that can warn astronomers when a massive star is about to end its life in a supernova explosion. In the final stages of their lives, these massive ‘red supergiant’ stars become about a hundred times fainter. This happens because material suddenly accumulates around the star, blocking our view of it.

For the first time, researchers have simulated how such massive stars appear to fade and disappear as they enter a pre-explosion phase. This research was published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“The dense material almost completely obscures the star, making it 100 times dimmer in the visible part of the spectrum. That means that the day before the star explodes, you probably wouldn’t be able to see it there,” said Ben Davies, corresponding author of the research article. Davies is part of the Astrophysics Research Institute at LJMU.

Until now, astronomers didn’t know how long it would take for these massive stars to start developing this cocoon of material before the explosion. In the new study, the researchers looked at what red supergiants look like when embedded in these shells of material. The astronomers searched old telescope archives and looked at images of these red supergiant stars, taken about a year before they exploded. They found that the stars appear normal. That is, this cocoon forms in less than a year, which in the cosmic context is like blinking an eye.

“Until now, we have only been able to obtain detailed observations of supernovae after they have already occurred. With this early warning system, we can prepare to observe it in real time, point the world’s best telescopes at it, and watch as the star’s surface is literally ripped apart before our eyes,” added Davies.

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