Baby supernova seen right in our neighborhood

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A baby supernova, just over a century old, has been found in the middle of our own Milky Way galaxy and provides an unprecedented opportunity to watch a star dying, astronomers said on Wednesday.

An artist's impression released Wednesday shows what the supernova explosion that resulted in the formation of the supernova remnant G1.9+0.3 might have looked like. The expanding debris from the supernova explosion is shown in white, including some interaction with the surrounding gas (green). The crowded environment near the center is shown by diffuse gas (red) and dust (brown) as well as large numbers of stars with different masses and colors. REUTERS/NASA/CXC/M.Weiss/Handout

The supernova, known as G1.9+0.3, would have made a bright flash when it first exploded 140 years ago but was not seen because dust obscures it, David Green of Britain’s University of Cambridge and colleagues reported.

“It’s by far the youngest supernova identified in the galaxy,” Green told reporters in a telephone briefing.

Green first identified the object in 1985 as a possible supernova, using radio readings from the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Very Large Array.

In 2007, Stephen Reynolds of North Carolina State University and colleagues looked at it using the orbiting Chandra X-Ray Observatory. They were surprised to find it was 16 percent bigger than the radio measurements.

“The only reasonable explanation we could come up with was, in the 22 years between those observations, it had grown by that rate,” Reynolds said.

They extrapolated its rate of growth to date the original explosion at 140 years ago.

The supernova is at the center of the galaxy, roughly 25,000 light-years from Earth. A light-year is the distance light travels in one year -- about 5.8 trillion miles.

Reynolds says the discovery renews the question of why so few supernovae have been seen in the Milky Way. Based on other galaxies, astronomers have estimated that about three such stellar explosions should occur every century.

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The most recent supernova in Earth’s neighborhood known until now occurred around 1680, creating the remnant called Cassiopeia A.

“If the supernova rate estimates are correct, there should be the remnants of about 10 supernova explosions in the Milky Way that are younger than Cassiopeia A,” said Green.

“It’s great to finally track one of them down.”

Dust could be hiding most of them, Green and Reynolds said, but X-ray and radio observations might find them.

“Looking out of the Milky Way, we can see some supernova explosions with optical telescopes across half of the Universe, but when they’re in this murk, we can miss them in our own cosmic back yard,” Reynolds said.

Writing in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the researchers said they can now watch and analyze the explosion as it unfolds.

While more distant supernovae can be seen with the naked eye, they quickly fade and the radio waves they create will take centuries to arrive.

Dr. Robert Kirshner of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who did not work on the study, said studying a young supernova could help scientists understand the very beginnings of life.

“The supernova makes a chemical element through real alchemy -- transforming one element into another one,” Kirshner said.

The iron in blood, for instance, was made by a star.

“We are all stardust and it seems reasonable for us to want to know how these elements get formed when stars explode,” Kirshner added.

“Our planet, our cells, our pieces are made of the vanished ashes of these exploded supernovae ... You are actually getting to see the rock that made the splash, not the wave that is going out into the pond.”

Editing by John O’Callaghan