Explosions in Space: The Supernova Quiz

Olivia Seitz

Image: shutterstock

About This Quiz

How much do you know about supernovae? Show off your knowledge when you take this quiz about huge explosions in space - light-years away - and the science behind them.

What is a supernova?

A supernova occurs when a star reaches the end of its life and explodes. According to NASA, the largest known explosions in space are from supernovae.

What could fate could a star experience besides exploding?

The final fate of a star depends on its size. Many stars simply run out of fuel and cool down over the millennia; a few extremely large stars may go on to form black holes.

Who last witnessed a supernova in the Milky Way?

Johannes Kepler, an astronomer for whom the Kepler satellite is named, recorded a supernova in 1604. Since then, NASA discovered evidence of a supernova that occurred a century ago, but it was not noted on Earth at the time.

What can cause a Type I supernova?

Type I supernovae come from binary star systems in which one star takes matter from a neighboring star. Once it grows too large, it explodes. Subcategories of Type I are Ia, Ib and Ic.

What causes a Type II supernova?

A Type II supernova is the natural death of a star. Over time, the star's mass migrates into its core, causing the star to collapse and explode.

What useful role do supernovae play in the universe?

Many important elements - like helium, hydrogen and carbon - are formed during the fusion reactions of stars. When the stars explode, these elements are shot off to the rest of the universe, allowing new stars and planets to form.

What is necessary, at a minimum, for discovering supernovae?

You don't need any additional instrumentation to find a supernova - while a telescope certainly helps, all you need to see many supernovae is a pair of eyes!

Which of the following can be used as evidence of supernovae?

NASA frequently uses a combination of evidence to detect supernovae, including visible light, x-rays and gamma rays. All three are products of the explosion!

What is the Chandrasekhar limit?

The Chandrasekhar limit, discovered by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, is the point at which a star will begin to collapse because of its mass. Stars that reach the Chandrasekhar limit will become a Type II supernova.

Will our sun become a supernova?

Fortunately for Earth, our sun will not explode. Unfortunately for Earth, it will expand into a red giant and engulf the planet in flames. Later, it will cool down and become a white dwarf.

What would happen if our sun, instead of cooling into a white dwarf, turned into a black hole?

Since the black hole would have the same mass as the current sun, its gravitational pull would be about the same and the Earth would remain in orbit. While the planet itself would survive, saying that life on Earth would be jeopardized would be an understatement.

After a Type II supernova, what remains of the star?

An incredibly dense mass from the center of the star remains after the explosion. The new star may release a steady stream of x-ray radiation, which helps scientists detect it.

What is a neutron star made of?

Neutron stars are super dense because they're made up of neutrons (the uncharged particles of atoms) that have been tightly packed together. That means their constituent part is significantly smaller than an atom!

According to NASA, how much would one teaspoon of a neutron star weigh?

Estimates vary, from some as low as 40 million tons up to 12 billion tons. In any case, neutron stars are so dense that their gravitational field is about two billion times greater than Earth's gravity.

What would happen if two neutron stars collided?

The collision would almost instantly form a black hole, given the enormous gravity that each star already produces. The whole process would only take seconds.

What is it called when a supernova results in a strongly magnetic neutron star?

A magnetar has the most powerful magnetic field in the known universe. The field is so strong that it could actually deform an atom!

What is the main difference between a supernova and a hypernova?

A hypernova is essentially a supernova, but with a much greater release of energy. Some hypernovae release deadly gamma radiation.

What causes a nova?

A nova is less permanent than a supernova: it's caused by an explosion on the white dwarf as it strips matter from a neighboring star. One star can have many novas, but only one supernova.

What releases the brightest light in the entire universe?

There's nothing brighter than a supernova except a hypernova, the supernova's higher-energy variant. When a hypernova occurs, it's the brightest light in the galaxy.

When was the first live recording of a supernova?

Researcher Alicia Soderberg was startled by the occurrence; she and her team were not expecting the massive X-ray readings picked up by their instruments! The supernova was named SN 2008D.

What do scientists suspect occurred during the 2008 supernova SN 2008D?

Given some strange data recorded during the event, a popular theory in the scientific community is that the star collapsed into a black hole after exploding. Other researchers think it was just an exceptionally powerful supernova.

What causes a neutron star to become a pulsar?

A neutron star becomes a pulsar under specific conditions, with the right mix of magnetic field and spin frequency. Slow pulsars rotate about once per second, while some rotate up to 700 times per second.

Why does a pulsar seem to flicker?

Pulsars rotate quickly, like beams from a lighthouse, and send a stream of X-rays in the direction of the neutron star's axis. If that jet stream faces toward Earth, scientists can pinpoint the pulsar's location.

"Supernova" comes from two Latin words meaning...

"Super" means "above" or "over," while "nova" means "new." The name is appropriate, since it describes the death of the old and the birth of the new.

When was the first supernova recorded?

A Chinese astronomer recorded a "new star" or "guest star" that hung in the sky, then disappeared after roughly eight months. Scientists believe the star exploded a mere two thousand years ago.

When SN 1006 exploded into Earth's view, how bright was the night sky as a result?

The supernova observed on Earth in 1006 AD would have released enough light for ancient citizens to pull out their tomes in the evening. It was the brightest recorded supernova visible from Earth.

How soon do we see the light from a supernova?

The time it takes for a supernova's light to reach Earth is governed by the distance the star is from Earth. It usually takes many light-years for the explosion to become visible to us.

What beautiful phenomenon often results from a supernova?

The gas and stardust remaining from the explosion form a new nebula. Beautiful color images of nebulae have been captured by the Hubble telescope.

The delicate Veil Nebula, spawned from a supernova, resides in which constellation?

Formed about eight thousand years ago, the Veil nebula adorns Cygnus, the "swan" constellation. It is about 1,500 light-years from Earth.

What lights up nebulae in the night sky?

Most nebulae, if bright, are lit from neighboring stars. Some nebulae are also brightened by the light stars inside them!

What does a supernova sound like?

Sound has no medium through which to travel in space, so you wouldn't hear an explosion if you witnessed a supernova!

What can form from a nebula?

The nebula, which contains leftover material from other stars and explosions, can eventually form a protostar if those materials knot up and condense. The prefix "proto-" means first, or earliest stage of, as in "prototype."

What is a protostar?

A protostar is the early stage of star formation. If it can gain enough mass, gravity will attract more matter and heat up the core.

How many stars can a protostar form?

One protostar can split to form several stars, which explains why many stars have nearby neighbors.

What event probably triggered the formation of our solar system?

While we couldn't rule out or confirm a multi-star collision as the cause of the supernova, we can say that a supernova probably caused our solar system to form when its shock waves penetrated a nearby nebula.

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