University of Hawaiʻi researcher to lead NASA study on nature of dying stars

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FILE – Debris from a star that exploded known as Kepler’s supernova remnant. (NASA photo)

HONOLULU (KHON2) — University of Hawaiʻi (UH) Institute for Astronomy postdoctoral researcher Chris Ashall will lead an international team of scientists to look into how stars die, explode and release heavy elements into the universe.

Two programs were awarded to Ashall’s team to conduct detailed observations in fall 2021 with NASA’s $10 billion James Web Space Telescope (JWST) flagship mission.

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Exploding stars are known as supernovae and produce a majority of the heavy elements in the universe. These heavy elements include iron, calcium and silicon, and they “form the building blocks for life,” UH officials say.

Ashall and the MIR SuperNovA Collaboration (MIRSNAC) will observe two separate types of supernovae. A supernova that results from the death of a single, massive star is known as Type II. A supernova that results from a white dwarf is known as Type Ia. Ashall says the study is an exhilarating opportunity for supernova science.

“We may finally be able to understand the final stages of a star’s life, how they explode, what heavy elements they make, and how these elements are redistributed into the universe. It is truly an extremely exciting time for supernova science.” 

Chris Ashall, University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy postdoctoral researcher

Observations of Type II supernovae will reveal the amount of cosmic dust that is produced when hydrogen-rich stars die while observations of Type Ia supernovae will define the mass of a white dwarf when it explodes. UH officials say data from Type Ia observations is critical in determining that the universe’s expansion rate is accelerating.

Ashall and the MIRSNAC are some of the first groups to have two projects awarded for the JWST observations.

The UH Institute for Astronomy will be at the forefront of the collaborative effort that consists of 30 international scientists from institutes including Aarhus University, the European Southern Observatory, Florida State University, University of California Davis, University of Oklahoma and Carnegie Observatories.

Click here to learn more about the JWST.

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