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Why A Supernova Explodes

If a Type II supernova is the collapse of a massive star, why does a huge explosion result? We do not have the answer, partly because of the extreme physical conditions that exist in the temperatures (about a trillion degrees) and pressures in a collapsing stellar core, and partly because everything happens very rapidly. The more rapidly the situation is changing, the more difficult it is to simulate it on a computer.

The usual explanation is that the outer layers "bounce" off the collapsed core. Try this experiment: hold two superballs, one larger than the other, about 5 ft (1.5 m) off the floor. Hold the smaller superball so that it is on top of and touching the larger one. Drop them simultaneously, so they fall with the little ball just above the big one (this takes some practice). If you do it right, the large ball (the "core") will stop dead on the floor, and the little ball (the "outer layers") will be flung high in the air. Something akin to this is thought to happen in a supernova. As the core collapses, a shock wave develops as the material gets jammed together. The incredible energy involved blasts the star's outer layers far into space.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Stomium to SwiftsSupernova - Guest Stars, Types Of Supernovae, Why A Supernova Explodes, Supernova 1987a