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ScienceDaily (June 13, 2011) — In 1987, light from an exploding star in a neighboring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, reached Earth. Named Supernova 1987A, it was the closest supernova explosion witnessed in almost 400 years, allowing astronomers to study it in unprecedented detail as it evolves. Today a team of astronomers announced that the supernova debris, which has faded s0vewr the years is now brightening. This shows that a different power source has begun to light the debris, and marks the transition from a supernova to a supernova remnant.
When a massive star explodes as a supernova, substantial amounts of radioactive elements—primarily 56Ni, 57Ni and 44Ti—are produced1. After the initial flash of light from shock heating, the fading light emitted by the supernova is due to the decay of these elements2. However, after decades, the energy powering a supernova remnant comes from the shock interaction between the ejecta and the surrounding medium. The transition to this phase has hitherto not been observed: supernovae occur too infrequently in the Milky Way to provide a young example, and extragalactic supernovae are generally too faint and too small. Here we report observations that show this transition in the supernova SN 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud. From 1994 to 2001, the ejecta faded owing to radioactive decay of 44Ti as predicted. Then the flux started to increase, more than doubling by the end of 2009. We show that this increase is the result of heat deposited by X-rays produced as the ejecta interacts with the surrounding material. In time, the X-rays will penetrate farther into the ejecta, enabling us to analyse the structure and chemistry of the vanished star.