Supernovas - What is a supernova?
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Supernova from space
(thanks to NASA and the Hubble Telescope)

Supernovas are exploding stars. Red giant stars explode when they have used up their hydrogen and helium fuel, and converted most of their atoms to iron atoms.

Red giant stars have a lot of gravity pulling them inward. Normally they don't collapse inward because the nuclear fusion going on inside them pushes energy outward and balances the pull of gravity. When the nuclear fusion stops, the force of gravity pulls the star inward. When the inner shell hits the iron core, it makes a huge shock wave and the star explodes.

When a star explodes, it shoots out billions of atoms into space, where they form a huge cloud of dust called a nebula. Other than hydrogen and helium, pretty much all of the atoms that are around today were originally made inside stars and then shot out into space when their star became a supernova. Most of the carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, silicon, and iron that we have on Earth originally came from a supernova explosion. In addition, because the explosions are so hot (hundreds of millions of degrees), new, heavier kinds of elements, like gold and uranium, form within the explosion itself.

The first stars became supernovas about 14 billion years ago, but stars are still becoming supernovas today, whenever they run out of fuel. In 1054 AD, astronomers in China and the Islamic Empire recorded a supernova (they noticed a star so bright you could see it in the daylight). That supernova is now the Crab Nebula. Our own star, the Sun, will never become a supernova because it is not big enough to make enough gravity. Instead, it will become a white dwarf.

When the supernova is over, what you have left is a new nebula and a neutron star, or, if the star was one of the very biggest stars, then sometimes it leaves behind a nebula and a black hole.

More different types of stars

Bibliography and further reading about supernovas:

Or check out this supernova article from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Physics home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 30 March, 2017