Today is the thirty-fourth anniversary of a significant astronomical event. It’s the anniversary of a star explosion. On February 23, 1987, astronomers and other observers on Earth witnessed the explosion of a star with a mass about twenty times that of our Sun. They called it supernova SN 1987A.
The explosion was bright enough to see with the naked eye. While Earth observers saw it in 1987, the explosion happened long before that. Since the star was located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy 160,000 light-years from Earth, we witnessed an event that occurred 160,000 years in the past.
There have been other supernovas, but SN 1987A was the brightest supernova observed since the telescope’s invention. It was also the brightest since Chinese astronomers observed a star exploding in A.D. 1054. For the past thirty-four years, astronomers have studied the ring of fire as it expands outward from that explosion. The picture showing the remnant of the explosion is a composite image from 2014. It combines visible light from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and x-rays from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
Studying the creation process also shows us the incredible precision required to make the universe possible and create life on this planet. On this thirty-fourth anniversary of a star explosion, we are reminded of the words of an ancient psalm, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalms 19:1).
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.