For the first time in history, scientists are now able to see the details of a supernova remnant in
the making. Astronomers from Columbia have discovered a new brightening of the circumstellar
ring around a supernova, indicating that supernova ejecta have finally begun to collide with a shell
of gas blown out by the star earlier in its lifetime.

The activity was sighted on Dec. 25, 1999, by a team of Columbia astrophysicists, Stephen
Lawrence, Arlin Crotts, Ben Sugerman, and Robert Uglesich, led by Patrice Bouchet of the National
Astronomy Observatories’ Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). A “hot spot” that
appeared in the circumstellar ring around the supernova in 1997 was believed to be the first
impact of supernova ejecta, but no other activity sites had been observed until the CTIO and
Columbia team sighted this one in December. The new hot spot is about the same brightness as
the first was when it was originally found. Other, fainter impact sites are present in their
observations. The scientists also determined that the original hot spot had brightened significantly
since their last observation over a year ago.

“The first collision of ejecta may have been a jet of material striking the circumstellar ring,
shocking the gas into emission, much like bullets hitting a target,” said Crotts, a Columbia
professor of astronomy. “Now the entire ring is beginning to be engulfed with shocked material
from the supernova, lighting up the ejecta and circumstellar material as a supernova remnant. We
have observed many examples of supernova
remnants — for example, the Crab Nebula — but all were formed long ago. We have never before
seen one in the making in any meaningful degree of detail.”

The significance of the newly discovered hot spots is that they are not confined to a single
location, but are distributed around the circumstellar ring. The distribution around the ring
indicates that a large fraction of the ejected material is finally colliding with the whole ring, instead
of a fast moving “bullet” of ejecta making a single hot spot. If so, this is the beginning the long
awaited formation of a supernova remnant. Other teams making follow-up observations with the
Hubble Space Telescope in late January and early February have confirmed the new hot spot and
found a number of other faint, new impact sites. These other hot spots are also found in the CTIO
data, at a more subtle level.

The CTIO observations used an innovative imaging system on a Blanco 4-m telescope that
achieved better spatial resolution than is commonly possible from ground-based observatories.
The CTIO system tips and tilts the secondary mirror of the telescope to take the “twinkle” out of
starlight, producing steadier, sharper images. They also used a novel image processing technique
developed by the Columbia team.

Supernova 1987A occurred when the star known as Sanduleak -69 202 ended its life in a gigantic
explosion, which was observed on earth on February 23, 1987, and became known as supernova
1987A. While the radiation from that explosion traveled out at the speed of light, material from
the star itself was ejected at a much lower speed, some tens of millions of miles per hour. This
material is now beginning to catch up and collide with material blown out some twenty thousand
years earlier by the star in a relatively gentle, slow, cool stellar wind. This collision of supernova
ejecta with the wind material, now forming the circumstellar shell, was predicted to occur
sometime between 1995 and 2010.



Supernova 1987A’s nebula (colored ring) is now filling with exploding spots (mostly in red) as the
supernova destroys it.