Supernovas. Even at the most basic level of understanding people know a supernova is a massive ‘Earth-shattering kaboom’ – to quote our favorite Martian. Well, if it were up to computer simulations, that isn’t exactly how the story would go.


The Cassiopeia A Supernova Remnant (Click to see a larger image)

Scientist and computers agree; as a stars nuclear fuel runs out it begins to collapse and that pressure creates new nuclear reactions. Then cyber space and outer space have a difference of opinion. For years, computers have been telling scientists that a star collapses, gravity wins, and nothing happens; no awesomely terrifying explosion. Only, our observations disagree, especially since supernovas have been recorded as early as 185 AD by Chinese astronomers when they witnessed the birth of the RCW 86 Nebula (or SN 185).


Obviously, something is missing from the computer simulations. Naturally, the logical conclusion is to examine a supernova as it occurs, except, that isn’t possible. So, scientists move to the next best thing and do what astrophysicists do best – launch another space telescope.


The NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) was launched on June 13th, 2012 with the mission to image X-rays at very high magnification. Specifically, scientists believe an element called titanium-44 might be the secret ingredient for a star to go supernova. Titanium-44 is thought to form at a very special depth of a collapsing star.


Another issue with the computer model might be its symmetry. Most of these models are done in one dimension; scientists assume the rest of the star behaves in a similar way. If the star collapses in an asymmetrical fashion, this could help solve the mystery of the stark difference in realities between computers and nature. Again, titanium-44 might hold the key because it would form asymmetrically in a collapsing star.


Hopefully, the NuSTAR telescope and the brilliant minds who analyze the data will answer the conundrum of why won’t the supernova explode.

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