Hubble telescope eyes galactic site of distant star explosion (video)

The famed Hubble snagged the clearest picture yet of a faraway galaxy while hunting for evidence of a supernova.

The area, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, came into the limelight three years ago after astronomers witnessed the violent death of one of its massive stars just days after it ran out of fuel and exploded into a supernova.

The fresh, face-on image showcases the distant UGC 678 galaxy, which lies 260 million light-years from Earth in the constellation Pisces. While astronomers know very little about the galaxy's formation and makeup, past observations with different telescopes have unveiled it to be an intriguing object.

Related: What is a supernova?

The barred spiral galaxy UGC 678 imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. (Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, C. Kilpatrick, R. J. Foley)

On Dec. 2, 2020, astronomers discovered evidence of "an enormous supernova explosion" close to the galaxy's heart, revealing that a star many times more massive than the sun had run out of fuel and caved under its own gravity.

The mysterious star's explosive death that followed was spotted by the Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), which is a network of four telescopes in Hawaii, Chile and South Africa that hunts the sky for near-Earth asteroids. Although ATLAS' main focus is to warn astronomers of objects that will impact Earth, the project also flags sudden changes in signals from celestial objects, like those sprouted from the violent death of a star in the UGC 678 galaxy.

Astronomers who reported the discovery of this supernova in 2020 said they saw the event "within a few days of explosion," and called for more detailed observations. Just shy of two weeks after the discovery, the European Space Agency's (ESA) Gaia spacecraft confirmed that the bright light seen by astronomers was indeed due to a supernova.

Related: Astronomers catch rare glimpse of oldest known supernova, which dates back to Year 185

Further studies of UGC 678 include sightings by the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System, or Pan-STARRS, in Hawaii. Hubble also observed the galaxy twice to search for remnants left in the wake of the explosion, "in the hope of unearthing clues to the identity of the star that produced the 2020 supernova," ESA representatives wrote in an image description published on Monday (April 17).

Multiple such detections have helped astronomers pin down what the galaxy looks like, but they do not yet know much about the erupted star itself.

Although UGC 678 is not part of the Milky Way, the galaxy’s shape appears similar to our home galaxy. UGC 678 has a spiral structure with a star studded disk morphed into swirling arms. 

Also, the galaxy's center has a bar structure, thanks to gas and dust that is funneled inward. Astronomers say this framework similar to the Milky Way's barred center but much, much fainter.

"It is visible as a diagonal group of stars that stretches from the lower left (7 o'clock) to the upper right (1 o'clock) of the galaxy's core," NASA officials wrote in a second statement published on Friday (April 21).

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Sharmila Kuthunur contributor

Sharmila Kuthunur is a Seattle-based science journalist covering astronomy, astrophysics and space exploration. Follow her on X @skuthunur.

  • rod
    Supernovae are interesting and apparently create various elements in the r-process. I found out reading the April Sky & Telescope that every breath we take, 160 million massive stars blew up to create the oxygen :)

    The Little Stars That Can, Sky & Telescope 145(4):36-40,2023 by Ken Croswell.

    My note, how many of the elements found on Earth were created by the r-process and s-process is difficult to determine using the BB cosmology and later stellar evolution r-process and s-process. This report indicated the oxygen we breathe today evolved from 160 million different supernovae events (how many have been observed?). “In fact, with every breath you take, you inhale oxygen forged in 160 million different massive stars that went supernova, according to Matteucci and Donatella Romano (Italian National Institute for Astrophysics, Bologna).”

    The report stated about lithium production. "Since these discoveries, both teams have detected beryllium-7 in many more novae. Izzo’s team even saw beryllium-7 in two novae that appeared in another galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud, in 2019 and 2020 as well as in RS Ophiuchi, a recurrent nova in the Milky Way that exploded in 2021. So just how much of Earth’s lithium-7 came from novae? Tajitsu estimates about 50%. Izzo says about 70%. Matteucci thinks about 75%. Aoki estimates 70% to 80%. Starrfield says about 90%. If these scientists are right, about half or more of the lithium in your cell phone was forged in nova explosions in the galaxy…Rare Isotopes Theoretical calculations indicate that novae also produce rare isotopes of three of the most common elements in the universe: carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen."

    My observation. Novae creating elements like lithium or others in our galaxy is difficult to document and calculate the total mass or amount contribution. “The Nova Rate Exactly how much nova nucleosynthesis contributes to the galaxy depends on how many novae occur each year — a number no one knows. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in estimating the nova rate for our galaxy,” says Allen Shafter (San Diego State University), who has spent most of his career trying to do just that.”

    Somehow, these various elements seen in the stars wound up here for folks to use, and breathe :)