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No. 52: Jul-Aug 1987

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Supernova Confusion And Mysteries

Just a few weeks ago, IN SF#51, we reported some of the anomalies surrounding supernova 1987A, the first nearby super nova since 1604 AD. 1987A's nearness has given astronomers the opportunity to identify just which star exploded. (Other supernovas have been much too far away.) The prime suspect was the star Sanduleak -69 202. But then it was claimed that old -69 202 was still alive and well. This presented a quandry because no other star in the area was large enough to go supernova. But now it seems there was a mistake, and it was Sanduleak -69 202 all along that detonated. (Waldrop, M. Mitchell; "Supernova 1987A: Notes from All Over," Science, 236:522, 1987.)

Comment. Naturally all of astronomy heaved a sigh of relief over this. Unfortunately, the relief was short-lived, and a second dose of antacid now seems required!

Just a few days after the above, researchers reported in the New York Times some discomforting news:

"According to Dr. Robert W. Noyes of Harvard-Smithsonian (Center for Astrophysics), the observations gathered by an extraordinarily sensitive camera show that the bright exploding star, or supernova, is actually two points of light, very close together, one about 10 times brighter than its companion. Since neither was present before the explosion, astronomers assume both arose from the same blast, but how this could happen is a mystery.

"The supernova and its apparent companion lie in the Greater Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way, at a distance of 150,000 light years from earth. The instrument used by the Harvard-Smithsonian group measured the distance between the two supernova elements as about one-twentieth of an arc second. This is about the separation a human eye would see between the headlights of a car some 6,000 miles away

"Dr. Noyes said this distance was equivalent to an actual distance between the two bright objects of only about 3,000 Astronomical Units, where one Astronomical Unit is the distance from the sun to the earth, about 93,000,000 miles. This is a tiny distance in astronomcial terms; but if both objects stemmed from the same explosion, Dr. Noyes said, they must have been moving apart at more than half the speed of light -- an immense and surprising speed."

(Browne, Malcolm W.; "Stellar Explosion Reported to Spawn Mysterious Twin," New York Times, May 23, 1987. Cr. J. Covey.)

Comment. In modern supernova theory there is no place for stellar fission with fragments flying off at near the speed of light!

From Science Frontiers #52, JUL-AUG 1987. 1987-2000 William R. Corliss