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SN 1987A

SN 1987A: Webb Telescope Uncovers First Hint of Neutron Star in Young Supernova!


NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has recently unveiled groundbreaking evidence pointing towards the presence of a neutron star at the heart of the SN 1987A supernova remnant. This discovery marks a significant milestone in the ongoing quest to understand the aftermath of core-collapse supernovae and the formation of compact objects like neutron stars or black holes.

What was important about SN 1987A?

SN 1987A rocked astronomy as the closest supernova in centuries! Its proximity allowed detailed studies, from first-ever neutrino detection to tracking its evolution. Ongoing research delves into dust formation, potential star birth, and the elusive neutron star, making it a key piece in understanding these spectacular stellar explosions.

How far is SN 1987A from Earth?

SN 1987A: A Supernova Spectacle

SN 1987A, a core-collapse supernova, occurred 160,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud. It captivated astronomers worldwide when first observed in February 1987, peaking in brightness by May of the same year. This event was particularly noteworthy as it was the first supernova visible to the naked eye since Kepler’s Supernova in 1604.

The Mystery Unveiled: Neutrinos and Theoretical Models

Approximately two hours before the visible-light observation of SN 1987A, three global observatories detected a brief burst of neutrinos. This rare event provided crucial links between different observations and supported theories suggesting the formation of either a neutron star or a black hole in the supernova’s aftermath. Over the years, indirect evidence hinted at the presence of a neutron star, but direct confirmation remained elusive until the recent Webb observations.

Evidence of Neutron star in SN 1987A
The James Webb Space Telescope has observed the best evidence yet for emission from a neutron star at the site of a well-known and recently-observed supernova known as SN 1987A. At left is a NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera) image released in 2023. The image at top right shows light from singly ionized argon (Argon II) captured by the Medium Resolution Spectrograph (MRS) mode of MIRI (Mid-Infrared Instrument). The image at bottom right shows light from multiply ionized argon captured by the NIRSpec (Near-Infrared Spectrograph). Both instruments show a strong signal from the center of the supernova remnant. This indicated to the science team that there is a source of high-energy radiation there, most likely a neutron star.
NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, C. Fransson (Stockholm University), M. Matsuura (Cardiff University), M. J. Barlow (University College London), P. J. Kavanagh (Maynooth University), J. Larsson (KTH Royal Institute of Technology)

Claes Fransson, the lead author and a researcher from Stockholm University, commented on the findings, stating, “From theoretical models of SN 1987A, the 10-second burst of neutrinos observed just before the supernova implied that a neutron star or black hole was formed in the explosion. But we have not observed any compelling signature of such a newborn object from any supernova explosion. With this observatory, we have now found direct evidence for emission triggered by the newborn compact object, most likely a neutron star.

Webb’s Pioneering Observations

The James Webb Space Telescope initiated its scientific observations in July 2022, with the study on SN 1987A being one of its early endeavors. On July 16, Webb utilized the Medium Resolution Spectrograph (MRS) mode of its Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), an Integral Field Unit (IFU) developed by the same team. IFUs, such as the MRS, enable simultaneous imaging and spectroscopy, providing detailed insights into the object being observed.

The MRS revealed a robust signal from ionized argon at the center of the ejected material surrounding the SN 1987A site. Subsequent observations with Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) IFU exposed even more heavily ionized chemical elements, particularly five times ionized argon. The presence of such ions indicated the need for a high-energy radiation source in the supernova remnant, leading scientists to posit the existence of a newborn neutron star.

Deciphering the Observations

Spectral analysis played a crucial role in unraveling the mysteries of SN 1987A. The Doppler shift of each spectrum allowed researchers to evaluate the velocity at different positions within the remnant. The strong signals from ionized argon and other heavily ionized elements strongly suggested the presence of a high-energy radiation source at the core.

Fransson remarked, “To create these ions that we observed in the ejecta, it was clear there had to be a source of high-energy radiation in the center of the SN 1987A remnant. In the paper, we discuss different possibilities, finding that only a few scenarios are likely, and all of these involve a newly born neutron star.”

Future Prospects and Ongoing Research

The groundbreaking observations from Webb have opened new avenues for further exploration. Additional observations using Webb and ground-based telescopes are planned for the coming year. The research team aims to delve deeper into the heart of the SN 1987A remnant, seeking more clarity and details that could refine existing models.

The ultimate goal is to enhance our understanding not only of SN 1987A but also of core-collapse supernovae in general. These ongoing studies are expected to stimulate the development of more detailed models, providing astronomers with valuable insights into the complex processes underlying these cosmic phenomena.

Is SN 1987A still visible?

Recently, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) captured observations of SN 1987A, revealing evidence of the central core, possibly a neutron star, for the first time. This exciting discovery marks another step in understanding the aftermath of this extraordinary supernova.


NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has played a pivotal role in uncovering direct evidence of high-energy emission from a probable neutron star at the SN 1987A supernova remnant site. This discovery marks a significant milestone in astrophysics, shedding light on the aftermath of core-collapse supernovae and the formation of compact objects. As scientists continue to unravel the mysteries surrounding SN 1987A, the ongoing observations, and detailed analyses promise to deepen our understanding of these celestial events, paving the way for advancements in our comprehension of the broader universe.

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