NASA’s Kepler telescope managed to record, for the first time ever, the early shockwave of an exploding star, thanks to a super fortunate bit of luck. The light captures, reconstructed into ‘footage,’ reveal the bright “shock breakout” that occurred in the early part of the supernova event of a massive star roughly 500 times the size of our sun and around 1.2 billion light years away. Scientists found it while searching Kepler’s collections of light from 500 different galaxies.

The animation above, rendered by an artist, shows the “shock breakout” of an exploding star’s shockwave, similar to the real life event shown in the top photo. The scientific team was led by Peter Garnavich, an astrophysics professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and they worked to analyze light captured by NASA’s Kepler telescope every 30 minutes over a three-year period. After sifting through evidence from 50 trillion stars in 500 distant galaxies, the team discovered that Kepler had snagged a recording of an epic interstellar catastrophe: the explosions of two massive stars, called red supergiants. Only one of the two booms emitted a shockwave, as the smaller of the two stars was surrounded by gas that may have absorbed the energy, astronomers theorize.

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It’s an impressive feat, since the shock breakout itself only lasts about 20 minutes, and capturing an event like this is a once in a lifetime achievement. “In order to see something that happens on timescales of minutes, like a shock breakout, you want to have a camera continuously monitoring the sky,” said Garnavich. “You don’t know when a supernova is going to go off, and Kepler’s vigilance allowed us to be a witness as the explosion began.”

Supernovae like these, categorized as Type II, occur when a star runs out of internal fuel and collapses on itself, thanks to gravity. Without exploding stars to distribute heavy elements, the Earth itself may never have come into existence. “All heavy elements in the universe come from supernova explosions. For example, all the silver, nickel, and copper in the earth and even in our bodies came from the explosive death throes of stars,” said Steve Howell, project scientist for NASA’s Kepler and K2 missions at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “Life exists because of supernovae.”

Via Popular Science

Image via NASA Ames