Supernova Core Collapse

A core-collapse, or Type II, supernova occurs in massive stars when they can no longer sustain fusion. For most of their lives, stars produce energy by fusing hydrogen into helium. Eventually, the hydrogen runs out and the core contracts until it reaches temperatures hot enough to cause the helium to fuse into carbon. This process repeats through to heavier elements, producing a pre-collapse star with onion-like layers of elements with the heaviest elements near the center. When the core consists mostly of nickel and iron, fusion will come to an end, and the core’s next collapse will trigger the supernova. When astronomers observed Supernova 1987A, the closest supernova in more than 300 years, models predicted that the onion-like layers of the supernova would persist after the explosion. But observations showed core materials reaching the surface much faster than predicted, suggesting that turbulent mixing might be carrying heavier elements outward. The images above show several time steps of a 2D simulation of this type of supernova. In the wake of the expanding shock wave, the core materials form fingers that race outward, mixing the fusion remnants. Hydrodynamically speaking, this is an example of the Richtmyer-Meshkov instability, in which a shock wave generates mixing between fluid layers of differing densities. (Image credit: K. Kifonidis et al.; see also B. Remington)

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