Flash of a dying star "caught on camera" for the first time

We may have images, both static and moving, of stars going boom playing in our head, but actually capturing that brilliant flash of light that heralds the start of a supernova isn't that easy. Even when we're talking about an event that has happened possibly thousands if not millions of years ago. And yet the once defunct Kepler space observatory spacecraft managed to make possible the near impossible, capturing for the first time the so-called shock breakout that precedes the explosion of a dying star.

To be clear, Kepler didn't really capture the flash as you would in a photograph, even if visible light was involved. Instead, what it captured was the optical wavelength of the flash in visible light. In short, it got more of a graph than a photo. Of course, NASA scientists and artists easily turn that graph into a visual that you and I can comprehend in awe.

But what's so special about that flash of bright light? Surely the actual explosion of a supernova is more interesting. However, like many flashes of light or sudden incidents, being able to capture such a brief event is very difficult to accomplish unless you are always on the lookout 24/7, which is what Kepler did. Granted, the shock breakout does last for 20 minutes, which is longer than any earth-based flash of light, but the allegory remains.

The actual events were actually observed back in 2011, but it is only now that scientists are wrapping up their analysis of the troves of data that Kepler sent back to Earth. Kepler actually observed two stars going supernova, the KSN 2011a, 300 times the size of our sun and 700 million light years away, and the even larger KSN 2011d, 500 times bigger than our sun and 1.2 billion light years away. It was, however, only the KSN 2011d that exhibited a shock breakout.

It is the difference of deaths between these two supernovae is part of what interests scientists. They posit that KSN 2011a might have been surrounded by gas that masked the flash of light. But more than the specifics of those two, scientists find supernovae in general fascinating because of their links to the beginnings of the universe. Much of the heavy elements in the universe, like silver, copper, and nickel, are attributed to the explosive deaths of stars. Studying these supernovae will give scientists some clues about the origins of the universe and of life itself.