Two teams of astronomers have made a compelling case in the 33-year-old mystery surrounding Supernova 1987A. Based on observations of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and a theoretical follow-up study, the scientists provide new insight for the argument that a neutron star is hiding deep inside the remains of the exploded star. This would be the youngest neutron star known to date.
Ever since astronomers witnessed one of the brightest explosions of a star in the night sky, creating Supernova 1987A (SN 1987A), they have been searching for a compact object that should have formed in the leftovers from the blast.
Because particles known as neutrinos were detected on Earth on the day of the explosion (23 February 1987), astronomers expected that a neutron star had formed in the collapsed center of the star. But when scientists could not find any evidence for that star, they started to wonder whether it subsequently collapsed into a black hole instead. For decades the scientific community has been eagerly awaiting a signal from this object that has been hiding behind a very thick cloud of dust.
Recently, observations from the ALMA radio telescope provided the first indication of the missing neutron star after the explosion. Extremely high-resolution images revealed a hot “blob” in the dusty core of SN 1987A, which is brighter than its surroundings and matches the suspected location of the neutron star.
The theoretical study by Page and his team, published today in The Astrophysical Journal, strongly supports the suggestion made by the ALMA team that a neutron star is powering the dust blob. “In spite of the supreme complexity of a supernova explosion and the extreme conditions reigning in the interior of a neutron star, the detection of a warm blob of dust is a confirmation of several predictions,” Page explained.
These predictions were the location and the temperature of the neutron star. According to supernova computer models, the explosion has “kicked away” the neutron star from its birthplace with a speed of hundreds of kilometers per second (tens of times faster than the fastest rocket). The blob is exactly at the place where astronomers think the neutron star would be today. And the temperature of the neutron star, which was predicted to be around 5 million degrees Celsius, provides enough energy to explain the brightness of the blob.