Hubble captures first-ever predicted exploding star

Caught in the act
This image composite shows the search for the supernova, nicknamed Refsdal, using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The image to the left shows a part of the the deep field observation of the galaxy cluster MACS J1149.5+2223 from the Frontier Fields program. The circle indicates the predicted position of the newest appearance of the supernova. To the lower right the Einstein cross event from late 2014 is visible. The image on the top right shows observations by Hubble from October 2015, taken at the beginning of observation program to detect the newest appearance of the supernova. The image on the lower right shows the discovery of the Refsdal Supernova on Dec. 11, 2015, as predicted by several different models. Credit: NASA & ESA and P. Kelly (University of California, Berkeley)

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured the image of the first-ever predicted supernova explosion. The reappearance of the Refsdal supernova was calculated from different models of the galaxy cluster whose immense gravity is warping the supernova's light.

Many stars end their lives with a with a bang, but only a few of these stellar explosions have been caught in the act. When they are, spotting them successfully has been down to pure luck - until now. On 11 December 2015 astronomers not only imaged a in action, but saw it when and where they had predicted it would be.

The supernova, nicknamed Refsdal, has been spotted in the galaxy cluster MACS J1149.5+2223. While the light from the cluster has taken about five billion years to reach us, the supernova itself exploded much earlier, nearly 10 billion years ago.

Refsdal's story began in November 2014 when scientists spotted four separate images of the supernova in a rare arrangement known as an Einstein Cross around a galaxy within MACS J1149.5+2223. The cosmic optical illusion was due to the mass of a single galaxy within the cluster warping and magnifying the light from the distant stellar explosion in a process known as gravitational lensing.

"While studying the supernova, we realised that the galaxy in which it exploded is already known to be a galaxy that is being lensed by the cluster," explains Steve Rodney, co-author, from the University of South Carolina. "The supernova's appears to us in at least three distinct images caused by the warping mass of the galaxy cluster."

These multiple images of the galaxy presented a rare opportunity. As the matter in the cluster - both dark and visible - is distributed unevenly, the light creating each of these images takes a different path with a different length. Therefore the images of the host galaxy of the supernova are visible at different times.

Using other lensed within the cluster and combining them with the discovery of the Einstein Cross event in 2014, astronomers were able to make precise predictions for the reappearance of the supernova. Their calculations also indicated that the supernova appeared once before in a third image of the host galaxy in 1998—an event not observed by any telescope. To make these predictions they had to use some very sophisticated modelling techniques.

"We used seven different models of the cluster to calculate when and where the supernova was going to appear in the future. It was a huge effort from the community to gather the necessary input data using Hubble, VLT-MUSE, and Keck and to construct the lens models," explains Tommaso Treu, lead author of the modelling comparison paper, from the University of California at Los Angeles, USA. "And remarkably all seven models predicted approximately the same time frame for when the new image of the exploding star would appear".

Since the end of October 2015 Hubble has been periodically peering at MACS J1149.5+2223, hoping to observe the unique rerun of the distant explosion and prove the models correct. On 11 December Refsdal finally made its predicted, but nonetheless showstopping, reappearance.

"Hubble has showcased the modern scientific method at its best," comments Patrick Kelly, lead author of the discovery and re-appearance papers and co-author of the modelling comparison paper from the University of California Berkeley, USA. "Testing predictions through observations provides powerful means of improving our understanding of the cosmos."

The detection of Refsdal's reappearance served as a unique opportunity for astronomers to test their models of how mass - especially that of mysterious dark matter - is distributed within this . Astronomers are now eager to see what other surprises the ongoing Hubble Frontier Fields programme will bring to light.

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Citation: Hubble captures first-ever predicted exploding star (2015, December 16) retrieved 20 October 2019 from
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Dec 17, 2015

The difference between science and pseudoscience.

Dec 18, 2015
Could someone answer a question for me? The story says: "While the light from the cluster has taken about five billion years to reach us, the supernova itself exploded much earlier, nearly 10 billion years ago." This doesn't make any sense to me. Can anyone explain that?

Dec 18, 2015
This is a very interesting question and one that is easy to answer. I do not have the time to read the full paper but the abstract will do just fine.

You must have noted that the article do not mention a specific galaxy but a cluster. This is important because it relates to the massive gravitational effect of this cluster; this cluster is responsible for the lensing effect. When you spot a lensing effect, in this case an Einstein Cross, you have to understand that this object you are observing do not belong to the cluster but from a place much further behind it.


Dec 18, 2015

It is possible to know what are the distances of observation with the measured redshifts given in the abstract: the cluster MACS J1149.5+2223 (z = 0.54), the supernova (SN) 'Refsdal' (z = 1.49). Plug the numbers in this calculator http://www.astro....alc.html just put 0.54 for the 'z' (redshift) and press flat; you find 5.375 Gyr for the cluster. For the SN put 1.49 for the 'z' and press flat; you find 9.38 Gyr.

I hope that this comment gives you a satisfactory answer.

Dec 18, 2015
I hope that this comment gives you a satisfactory answer.

@ Techno-Skippy. How you are? I'm just fine. I don't know if he will think it is satisfactory or non. But I sure did think he is satisfactory. And that thing was sure hard for me to get my head around. It's still hard for me but I did understand what you wrote.


Dec 20, 2015
@Uncle_Ira, and WindyStone:
The supernova is roughly 10 billion light years away, so its light has taken about 10 billion years to reach us.
After travelling for about 5 billion years, the light from the supernova passed by a cluster that is about halfway between us and the supernova. The cluster's gravity bent the light (and thus acted like a lens). The bent light from the supernova traveled for another 5 billion years to reach us, and we see it as a magnified and distorted image of the supernova.

The cluster also emits light, and since it is about 5 billion light years away its light takes about 5 billion years to reach us.

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