Nautilus

The Secret History of the Supernova at the Bottom of the Sea

In February 1987, Neil Gehrels, a young researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, boarded a military plane bound for the Australian Outback. Gehrels carried some peculiar cargo: a polyethylene space balloon and a set of radiation detectors he had just finished building back in the lab. He was in a hurry to get to Alice Springs, a remote outpost in the Northern Territory, where he would launch these instruments high above Earth’s atmosphere to get a peek at the most exciting event in our neck of the cosmos: a supernova exploding in one of the Milky Way’s nearby satellite galaxies.

Like many supernovas, SN 1987A announced the violent collapse of a massive star. What set it apart was its proximity to Earth; it was the closest stellar cataclysm since Johannes Kepler spotted one in our own Milky Way galaxy in 1604. Since then, scientists have thought up many questions that to answer would require a front row seat to another supernova. They were questions like this: How close does a

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