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For the first time, astronomers are capturing the explosive, ‘very violent’ death of a giant star

Astronomers saw a red supergiant star in its last days and its massive explosion when it died and became a supernova, the first time the phenomenon has ever been observed.

The star was first discovered in the summer of 2020 by a team of researchers at Northwestern University and the University of California, Berkeley using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS telescope on top of the Haleakalā volcano in Maui.

A few months later, the automated telescope captured the star's death. The team's findings were published in the Astrophysical Journal on January 6th.

"The death of a massive star like this, it's very dramatic and very violent," Wynn Jacobson-Galán, an astrophysicist at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study, told USA TODAY. "We've never really seen anything like it."

Supernovae are the largest explosions ever seen by humans and typically occur with stars that are 8 to 12 times larger than the Sun, according to NASA. While seen by humans, they have only been discovered after the explosion when gas and other debris are thrown into space. That waste can then form new stars and produce elements found on Earth.

An artist's impression of a red supergiant star in the last year of his life emitting a tumultuous cloud of gas.  This suggests that at least some of these stars undergo significant internal changes before going to the supernova.

An artist's impression of a red supergiant star in the last year of his life emitting a tumultuous cloud of gas. This suggests that at least some of these stars undergo significant internal changes before going to the supernova.

Jacobson-Galán said the star was in a very distant galaxy, about 120 million light-years away. After the team first saw the star, they saw it gradually become brighter as it emits gas before blowing and illuminating the room. The explosion happened in less than a minute.

"Supernovae are really, really impressive because they come from a single star that can then produce an explosion and light and photons that are clear enough to outshine the entire galaxy in which they originated," he said.

Even though the team saw the end of the star's life unfold, they were still unsure of what exactly they saw because it had never been observed before. After analyzing the data from when the star was intact and comparing them to the supernova, they realized that they were actually connected, giving them a sense of "delayed satisfaction".

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This observation changes the way astronomers understand the life cycle of stars, specifically a red supergiant, Jacobson-Galán said. It had long been thought that the stars would just quietly collapse into a supernova, not become brighter and more intense. The next step is to find out if this is happening to all red supergiant stars or just some, as well as what exactly is happening in the final stages of the star's life.

"It's a really strong discovery for us to understand what massive stars do before they explode, because this particular star was clearly undergoing a lot of dramatic changes," Jacobson-Galán said. "The future of this is actually really exciting."

Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @ jordan_mendoza5.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Astronomers capture the explosive 'very violent' death of a giant star

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