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Section of M51 with Progenitor Star

Amidst the glitter of billions of stars in the majestic spiral galaxy called the Whirlpool (M51), a massive star abruptly ends its life in a brilliant flash of light. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope snapped images of the exploding star, called supernova (SN) 2005cs, 12 days after its discovery. Astronomers then compared those photos with Hubble images of the same region before the supernova blast to pinpoint the progenitor star (the star that exploded).

Why do some stars explode as supernovae? Two types of stars generate supernovae. The first type, called a type Ia supernova is produced by a star's burned- out core. This stellar relic, called a white dwarf, siphons hydrogen from a companion star, thereby making it 1.4 times more massive than our Sun [called the Chandrasekhar limit]. This excess bulk leads to explosive burning of carbon and other chemical elements that make up the white dwarf, thereby producing a supernova explosion.

A star that is more than eight times as massive as our Sun generates the second type, called type II. When the star runs out of nuclear fuel, the core collapses, but when it reaches enormous densities, the collapse is halted, as if hitting a brick wall. The shock wave that ensues propagates through the outer layers and rips them apart, ejecting these layers at speeds of ten thousand miles per second.

Credit: NASA, ESA, W. Li and A. Filippenko (University of California, Berkeley), S. Beckwith (STScI), and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

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