SUPERNOVA1987A
The remains of another supernova known as 1987A are shown here in this image taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. The bright ring consists of material ejected from the dying star before it detonated. The ring is being lit up by the explosion's shock wave.NASA/ESA/Hubble

Astronomy amateurs have helped Australian scientists find a star that exploded around 970 million years ago – long before the dinosaurs even roamed the Earth.

Such exploding stars are known as supernovae. Although they burn only for a short amount of time, they can tell astronomers a lot about the universe. For instance, one type of supernova has allowed them to determine that the universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate.

Supernovae are explosions as bright as 100 million billion billion billion lightning bolts, and scientists now use them as light source to measure this growth of the universe.

These stars have also been shown to play a key role in the distribution of the elements throughout the universe. When the star explodes, it shoots elements and debris into space and go on to form new stars, planets and everything else in the universe.

Collaborative effort

The newly identified supernova has been named SN2017dxh. Its discovery was made possible thanks to an innovative strategy adopted by the scientists from The Australian National University (ANU).

They invited members of the public to join their search for supernovae, asking them them to log on a dedicated web portal and to examine images taken by the SkyMapper 1.3-metre telescope at the ANU Siding Spring Observatory for the SkyMapper Transient Survey.

The 700 volunteers who responded to the scientists' call scanned the SkyMapper images online, comparing pictures from the same area of the sky taken at different points in time.

supernova
On the left is the "new image" from a couple of nights ago while the middle one is the "reference" image taken a couple of years ago. The right image is the difference between "new" and "reference." These images confirm the existence of the supernova.ANU

They marked up any differences for the researchers to follow up. In just a day, the team was able to confirm that a previously unknown object was a real exploding star.

"The supernova is about 970 million light years away, meaning that it exploded before the dinosaurs were even on the Earth," said Dr Tucker from the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (RSAA). "This is the exact type of supernova we're looking for - type Ia supernova - to measure properties of and distances across the Universe."

He added that they were currently tracking 18 other possible similar exploding stars.