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See Inside Scientific American Volume 311, Issue 1

What a Failed Supernova Looks Like




COURTESY OF PHILIPP MÖSTA AND SHERWOOD RICHERS California Institute of Technology (3-D simulation)

What looks like a soap bubble is actually a 3-D simulation of a supernova—or rather a failed attempt at a supernova. Cosmic explosions mark the death of massive stars and are some of the most energetic phenomena in the universe, but they are not all-or-nothing events: some supernovae halt before they ever take off, as a new supercomputer simulation detailed in the Astrophysical Journal Letters shows.

The simulation modeled a class of supernovae that start from fast-spinning, highly magnetized stars. To the researchers' surprise, the program showed that such supernovae easily stall. If the magnetic field around the star is less than perfectly symmetrical, tiny kinks can become major instabilities that cause matter from the star to push out in the lopsided bulbs seen here. The process prevents the star from blowing up in typical supernova fashion. To understand what ultimately becomes of these aborted explosions, the scientists, led by California Institute of Technology astrophysicists Philipp Mösta and Christian Ott, say they will need an extended simulation on a more powerful supercomputer.

This article was originally published with the title "What Is It?."

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