While pottering around the universe, the Hubble Space Telescope recently clicked a photo of a dying star. The image sent back to Earth looks like a giant lidless eye peering back at the telescope, as described in unexpectedly poetic terms in a NASA release. At the center of the nebula is a giant star, one that was once 20 times the size of our sun. Now it is encased in a swirling ring of colored gas, the vestiges of another time before it cast off its outer layers with violent pulsations and winds.
There are countless stars out there, but this one -- known as SBW2001 but commonly called SBW1 -- is special because scientists believe it will become a supernova. What's more, it will be a supernova -- a star explosion -- in our own Milky Way.
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Supernovas have been appearing in the night sky for centuries. Chinese astronomers first formally recorded a supernova in 185 A.D. That star showed up and burned bright in the night sky and then disappeared eight months later. They knew it wasn't a comet, because it didn't move across the sky the way a comet would. They couldn't have known that they were witnessing the same kind of explosion that created the heavy elements, like iron and calcium, that we're all made of.
Since then there have been countless supernova appearances in our general vicinity of the universe. Some we can spot, while others are blocked by planet dust and the like. SBW1 has some of the same earmarks of another star that Hubble caught just after it exploded about 26 years ago, SN87A, which was located in a companion galaxy. In fact, both stars have similar rings about the same age and traveling at the same speed, according to Slate. Hubble came across the first star after it had exploded. The picture of SWB1 shows roughly what the star probably looked like right before the explosion.
We're about 20,000 light-years away from SBW1 (which scientists believe was possibly formed by one star gobbling another, Slate reports), so when and if it really does explode, we might be able to see it when it goes boom. It might even happen in our lifetimes, though the actual real chance of that is incredibly slim. Once the star reaches this phase of life, it has about 20,000 years, with plenty of give or take, before the big boom happens. That is just a sliver of time in the life of a star, but there could still be a long, long wait from our human viewpoint before the big show really gets going.
However, it's not completely impossible, because scientists believe our galaxy is supposed to go through about one supernova explosion per century, and we haven't seen a supernova in the Milky Way in centuries. We're overdue for one, and it could easily be another star that we haven't spotted that becomes the next supernova, but it could also just as easily be SBW1. Either way, SBW1 will flare up and start gleaming eventually, and when it does, whoever is hanging out on the planet at that point will have a lovely ringside seat for the death of a star.