December 4, 2008

Study Sheds Light on Supernova from 16th Century

Scientists believe they have finally found what Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe saw in the heavens over 400 years ago.

A new study confirms that Brahe witnessed a common kind of supernova, or thermonuclear explosion, which involved a white dwarf star with a nearby companion.

Researchers from Japan, Germany, and the Netherlands analyzed light wavelengths from the "light echo" of the past event, which was still observable on some dust clouds in deep space.  They presented their findings in the Thursday issue of Nature, a scientific journal.

The story of Tycho's supernova began on Nov. 11, 1572, when Brahe saw what he believed to be a new star in the constellation Cassiopeia. 

Eventually the light became as bright as Venus and could even be seen during daylight.  Sixteen months later the star disappeared.

Brahe, who was working before the invent of telescopes, documented that the light's position did not move in relation to the stars, meaning it was far beyond the moon.  The idea shocked many who believed that distant space was unchanging.

According to Michael Shank, professor of the history of science at the University of Wisconsin, Brahe's discovery inspired him to begin studying stars.  Many of his findings would lay the foundation for modern astronomy.


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