Scientists use ‘supernova machine’ to ‘recreate’ scene of cosmic explosion in lab

Supernovae are one of the most energetic events in the universe, and the resulting nebula is a favorite of stargazers. To better understand the physics behind them, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology built a “supernova machine” in the lab. Stars are essentially volatile objects made of gas that have been maintained for millions of years through a delicate balancing act. Strong gravity wants to pull matter to the center, but the core’s nuclear fusion is also pushing outwards. But in the end, the core of nuclear fuel inevitably ran out, and gravity won the battle.

Scientists use 'supernova machine' to 'recreate' scene of cosmic explosion in lab

The star then quickly collapses inwards, generating shock waves that send matter out at breakneck speed. This event is a supernova, rotating gas and matter is a nebula, and the dense object at the center is a neutron star or black hole. Now, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have recreated the process in the lab. Their supernovae is designed to study turbulence physics that produces some of the most stunning images in space.

The device is shaped like a piece of pizza, with a sharp end against the ground, 6 feet (1.8 meters) high and about 4 feet (1.2 meters) wide at the top. The middle window shows a room containing gases of different densities — heavier gases sinking at the bottom and lighter gases floating on top. This mimics different gas layers inside the star.

Scientists use 'supernova machine' to 'recreate' scene of cosmic explosion in lab

To trigger the “supernova”, there is a small box at the bottom of the machine containing something called research explosives (RDX) and tetrasterol tetranitrate (PETN). This will produce a miniature containing explosion that emits shock waves through pizza slices and gas, causing them to mix. These gases are illuminated by a laser, allowing high-speed cameras to observe the centimeter level. And the swirling, twisted result shas a supernova. The column of the heavy gas is forced upward through the lightweight layer, and then the pressure drop after the wave stretches the two types of gas down, mixing more thoroughly.

“One of the most interesting things we’ve seen relates to a mystery about supernovae — they shoot out high-density gases called jets, which may help create new stars,” said Ben Musci, the study’s lead author. “We saw some of the gas propulsion in the device, where heavy gas was spread into light gas. “

Scientists use 'supernova machine' to 'recreate' scene of cosmic explosion in lab

Of course, this machine can only capture a microcosm of the real thing. The team was very careful to take background radiation, temperature and gravity into account in the results. In addition, the shape of the machine can only reproduce the two-dimensional slice of the supernova — of course, the supernova usually occurs as an expanded three-dimensional sphere.

Still, the team says, the supernova ego machine could help astronomers calculate the speed of gas in the nebula and more accurately determine when they were born. The researchers say it could even go back into work to help develop nuclear fusion reactors.

The study was published in the Astrophysical Journal Of Letters. You can see how the supernova machine works in the video below.