On February 23, 1987, a historic explosion was witnessed by astronomers on Earth. A massive star known as Sanduleak -60 degrees 202 exploded. What was previously classified as a supergiant star became a supernova. For the first time since A.D.1054, there was a supernova close enough to the Earth for scientists to observe first-hand what was happening.
Students in high school physics and earth science classes study a diagram known as the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. It is simply a scattergram of the temperature of stars plotted against their luminosity. Stars begin as very hot blue giant stars. As they cool, they turn white-hot, then red, then brown. Then they may become a cinder. In the case of larger stars, the internal processes change, and they become giant stars which in some cases explode. Because these processes require a very long time, we don’t live long enough to see a single star go through all of these phases. But we can see stars in all of these stages. Seeing a star explode is a very rare event (about once a century), and Sanduleak -60 degrees 202 was thus a fantastic opportunity to see in detail what happens when a star explodes.
There is much to learn from Supernova 1987A. Exploding stars seed space with the heavier elements. We are learning how the elements that make up our world were formed. For those of us who believe God is the engineer of all of this, we can see how God made iron, copper, gold and the materials of the Earth’s crust. The incredible energy and power of the process testify to God’s power and creative wisdom. As we compare this supernova with the one that happened in A.D. 1054, which produced what is now called the Crab Nebula, we see it is different in many ways. In 1 Corinthians 15:41 the Bible tells us that “one star differs from another” and we now know that is true even of exploding stars. This supernova also gives us another tool to measure the size and age of the universe. We have several methods of measuring how far away this supernova is, but they all give us the same answer. The explosion took place 160,000 light years away from us, or 160,000 years ago. We are safe from the incredible radiation because of the huge distance.
We now have 30 years of measurements of this historic explosion. This birthday will be celebrated by scientists, but it is also significant to those who enjoy looking into space and seeing the handiwork of God.
–John N. Clayton © 2017