Record-Busting Star Explosion Baffles Sky Watchers : The Two-Way It's 200 times more powerful than a typical supernova and 570 billion times brighter than our sun. First spotted in June, this stellar monster is wowing astronomers, who wonder what's at its heart.
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Record-Busting Star Explosion Baffles Sky Watchers

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Record-Busting Star Explosion Baffles Sky Watchers

Record-Busting Star Explosion Baffles Sky Watchers

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A mind-boggling star explosion is baffling astronomers. The recently discovered Inferno is 570 billion times brighter than our sun - put another way, brighter than any exploding star ever seen before. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that no one's exactly sure what made this thing go boom.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: When massive stars die, they explode. Does this seem completely irrelevant to your life? Well, think again.

BENJAMIN SHAPPEE: If you look around here on Earth, anything that's not hydrogen or helium was actually made inside of a star.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Benjamin Shappee is an astronomer with the Carnegie Observatories. He says an exploding star, or supernova, scatters elements across the universe. That means you and everything you know and love are composed of the remnants of supernova explosions.

SHAPPEE: We wouldn't be here without them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The first record of a sky watcher spotting an exploding star goes back nearly 2000 years. These days, astronomers hunt for them with modern tools, such as the All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae or ASAS-SN Project. Its telescopes scan the entire sky. And in June, it detected a distant explosion. Follow-up observations revealed that it was the most powerful supernova ever seen, 200 times brighter than a garden-variety one and more than twice as bright as the previous record holder.

SHAPPEE: And I was actually so surprised by this result that I didn't really believe it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Shappee says it took additional observation to convince him. He and his colleagues describe it in this week's issue of the journal Science. Now, even though it's so bright, you can't see it with the naked eye. I asked Subo Dong what this massive explosion looks like. He's from the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University in China and the lead author on the paper. He says it's 3.8 billion light years away, so even with a telescope...

SUBO DONG: It looks like a little smudge. This is because it's so far away it (laughter). It doesn't look so spectacular.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: What's going on inside this thing to make it so unusually bright? Dong says they're mystified.

DONG: So honestly, the answer is, we don't know.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Scientists have spotted other so-called super-luminous supernovae before. They're rare and were thought to come from neutron stars with powerful magnetic fields. But this fiery beast pushes the limits of that theory. Researchers will learn more about it as they watch with telescopes in the coming months, and astronomers are already busy cooking up new explanations for the weirdness. Edo Berger is at Harvard University.

EDO BERGER: And it's often, I think, the most extreme events that teach us the most about the range of possibilities that the universe comes up with, especially when it comes to exploding objects.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says maybe this isn't a supernova at all. Maybe it's a start being ripped apart by a black hole. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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