Moment of Wonder: The Shock Breakout of a Supernova

NASA has shared some amazing footage of Mars, Pluto and the moons of Saturn. But this may be its recent money shot.

The space agency’s planet-hunting Kepler Space Telescope has for the first time captured the flash of an exploding star’s shockwave using optical wavelength, or visible light. Astronomers call this brilliant flash a “shock breakout.” They only last about 20 minutes and are essentially the opening salvo of a dying star going supernova.

A team led by Peter Garnavich, an astrophysics professor at the University of Notre Dame, analyzed light captured by Kepler every 30 minutes over a three-year period from 500 distant galaxies to obtain the the photometric observations used to create this video animation.

“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,” Garnavich says. “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.”

Sit back and enjoy the light show.