eso9401 — Comunicato Stampa Scientifico
Things Begin to Happen Around Supernova 1987A
27 Gennaio 1994
On 23 February 1994, it will be exactly seven years since the explosion of Supernova 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud  was first observed, at a distance of approx. 160,000 light-years. It was the first naked-eye supernova to be seen in almost four hundred years. Few events in modern astronomy have met with such an enthusiastic response by the scientists and this famous object has been under constant surveillance ever since. After several years of relative quiescence, things are now beginning to happen in the immediate neighbourhood of SN 1987A. Recent observations with the ESO 3.5 m New Technology Telescope (NTT) indicate that interaction between the stellar material which was ejected during the explosion and the surrounding ring-shaped nebulae has started. This signals the beginning of a more active phase during which the supernova is likely to display a number of new and interesting phenomena, never before observed.
SEVEN YEARS IN THE LIFE OF A SUPERNOVA
After brightening to maximum light at about magnitude 3 a few months after the explosion, the long period of steady fading which is typical for supernovae, set in by mid-1987. The matter ejected by the explosion took the form of an expanding fireball, which began to spread through the nearly empty space around the supernova with a velocity of almost 10,000 km/sec. As it cooled, the temperature and
therefore the total brightness decreased and the supernova became fainter and fainter. At the present moment, the magnitude of SN 1987A is about 18.5, that is almost 2 million times fainter than it was at maximum.
Various phenomena have been observed around SN 1987A during the past years. Already in early 1988, light echoes were seen as concentric, slowly expanding luminous circles; they represent the reflections of the explosion light flash in interstellar clouds inside the Large Magellanic Cloud, between the supernova and us. In 1989, high-resolution observations with the NTT showed an elliptical "ring-nebula", only two arcsec across, surrounding SN 1987A; it was interpreted as interactions between pre-existing circumstellar material and a shell of matter which was thrown off a few thousand years ago when a red giant star evolved into the blue star that eventually exploded. The best images of this nebula were first obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990.
There are also faint outer nebular loops around SN 1987A. It is thought that they trace the outer rim of a large bubble that was formed by the outflowing "wind" of matter from the star that later exploded.
During the past years, astronomers working at large telescopes in the southern hemisphere have conducted unsuccessful searches for a pulsar inside SN 1987A. Although most theories predict the emergence of a very compact object at the centre of a supernova, even very detailed investigations reaching very faint light levels have so far not been able to prove the existence of such an object in SN1987A.
RECENT CHANGES IN THE RING
But the development of SN 1987A is not yet over. After the first seven years, it is now about to enter a new phase.
In a Circular of the International Astronomical Union, astronomers Li-Fan Wang (Beijing Observatory) and E. Joseph Wampler (European Southern Observatory) have just reported that changes are seen in the inner ring nebula around SN 1987A when the latest NTT observations are compared with those carried out over the past two years.
The distribution of light along the ring has recently changed dramatically. It is now found to be gradually
increasing in brightness at several locations.
This is most easily seen on images obtained in the light of ionised nitrogen which enhances the contrast between the SN1987A ring nebulae and their surroundings.
Following computer sharpening of December 1993 CCD pictures to a resolution of 0.2 arcseconds - corresponding to the angle subtended by a coin of 1 cm diameter at a distance of 10 km - it is clear that the ring emission regions are now highly clumped.
BEGINNING OF THE "FIREWORKS?"
It is most interesting that these new bright patches in the inner ring coincide roughly with the recently observed structure of the radio emission received from SN 1987A. The astronomers believe that these changes in the ring may herald the beginning of the predicted collision between the matter in the expanding fireball and the nebular material which was ejected from the star during the evolutionary phase that preceded the explosion. The supernova shell is "catching up" with the material that was ejected earlier.
This interpretation is also supported by the recent observation of weak X-ray emission from the supernova with the ROSAT satellite. It probably signifies a beginning heating of the gas inside the nebular ring when the particles collide at high speeds.
Further observations at ESO show that no significant amount of the expanding matter has yet reached the ring. Detailed spectra, obtained with the NTT by the same astronomers, still do not show the violent motions that would signal a collision between the main mass of the expanding supernova envelope and the ring material.
These important observations have alerted astronomers to watch out for sudden, possibly quite dramatic changes in the ring. As a result, SN 1987A will now be monitored much more intensively. Never before has it been possible to observe such an event directly; the observed phenomena will undoubtedly provide completely new information about the chemical and physical state of the matter in the colliding clouds.
FIRST IMAGE OF THE FIREBALL FROM THE GROUND
The NTT has scored another first during these observations: thanks to its excellent optical properties, high-resolution images of the supernova in near-infrared light with a ground-based telescope for the first time show the exact extension of the fireball. Until now, this had only been possible with the Hubble Space Telescope.
The measured diameter in the sky is only 0.37 arcseconds. At the distance of the supernova, this corresponds to a size of about 0.29 light-years. The mean expansion rate during the past seven years is therefore about 0.04 light-years per year, or about 6000 km/sec, a value which is very close to that obtained from spectroscopic observations.