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Academic Minute

Dr. Carlos Badenes, University of Pittsburgh – The Kepler Supernova

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Carlos Badenes of the University of Pittsburgh examines the origin of one of the scientific revolution’s most important astronomical events.

Carlos Badenes is an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh where his research is focused on stellar evolution and the origins of Type Ia supernovae. He is currently leading an effort to develop data mining techniques to examine the role of binary systems as possible progenitors of Type Ia supernovae. He holds a Ph.D. from the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain.

About Dr. Badenes

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Dr. Carlos Badenes – The Kepler Supernova

My studies focus on exploding stars, known as supernovae. These are extremely powerful
events that happen about once per century in a galaxy like the Milky Way. Supernovae are the origin of many of the chemical elements that make up our planet and ourselves. The calcium in your bones, and the iron that makes your blood red all came from supernovae that exploded billions of years ago, before the Solar System was formed.

Back in 1604, famous astronomer Johannes Kepler recorded one of these supernovae in the Milky Way. A new star suddenly appeared in the constellation of Ophiuchus, got brighter, and then faded away in a few months. Although Kepler didn’t know it at the time, this supernova was a technically a special kind called Type Ia—an important supernovae because it can be used to measure large distances and study how our Universe has expanded since the Big Bang. Last year, two groups of astronomers were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery of a mysterious force called Dark Energy using Type Ia Supernovae. It's kind of embarrassing, but we still don't know exactly what kind of star explode in a Type Ia supernova.

Our work at the University of Pittsburgh concerns the remains of Kepler's supernova, what we call the Kepler Supernova Remnant. Four hundred years after the explosion, the supernova has left behind a huge ball of incandescent gas at millions of degrees—so hot that it shines in X-rays. These X-rays contain important clues about the supernova explosion and its parent star. In particular, we have been able to determine the amount of iron that was produced in the explosion. It seems that Kepler's supernova was unusually powerful, bright, and iron-rich. We hope that studies of nearby objects like the Kepler Supernova Remnant can help us understand Type Ia supernovae better.

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