British scientists to simulate explosion of a star

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Scientists aim to simulate the explosion of a star - a supernova - in laboratories at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. A full-scale re-creation would be more devastating than any nuclear explosion that the Earth has witnessed, writes Charles Arthur.

But the physics department team aim to set off chemical explosions which would propagate rather like the internal nuclear fires of an exploding sun.

Generally, during its intense period of nova activity, a star collapses and heats up enormously. New elements are formed in the core while much of the gas is blown off into space. The core often explodes, distributing new matter and elements into space. Thus, supernovae are an essential part of the "life cycle" of galaxies, and especially life.

Geraint Thomas, who is leading the research, said: "The gaps in our knowledge as to how supernovae actually explode leave room for much uncertainty. The experimental findings will allow astrophysicists to confirm or modify their models." Like fires, the explosion of a supernova can propagate as a flame or a detonation. The experiments will also help safety experts predict more accurately the severity of industrial plant explosions.

Observations of some supernovae, such as SN1987A, suggest they might begin as a slow flame which becomes supersonic, setting off a detonation. SN1987A was a star in the Large Magellanic Cloud which in 1987 suddenly turned into a supernova. After studying pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers now reckon that two stars orbiting each other combined, and the core collapsed, eventually producing the nova.