SN 1987A was a supernova in the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby dwarf galaxy. It occurred approximately 51.4 kiloparsecs from Earth, close enough that it was visible to the naked eye. It could be seen from the Southern Hemisphere. It was the closest observed supernova since SN 1604, which occurred in the Milky Way itself. The light from the supernova reached Earth on February 23, 1987. As the first supernova discovered in 1987, it was labeled "1987A". Its brightness peaked in May with an apparent magnitude of about 3 and slowly declined in the following months. It was the first opportunity for modern astronomers to see a supernova up close.
It was discovered by Ian Shelton and Oscar Duhalde at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile on February 24, 1987, and within the same 24 hours independently by Albert Jones in New Zealand. On March 4–12, 1987 it was observed from space by Astron, the largest ultraviolet space telescope of that time.
Since 51.4 kiloparsecs is approximately 168,000 light-years, the cosmic event itself happened approximately 168,000 years prior to its observation in 1987.
Most supernovas grow dimmer with the passage of time as they release their energy. But the X-ray and radio emissions from 1987A grew brighter because its shock wave had crashed into a dense cloud of gas and dust.
Soon after the event was recorded, the progenitor star was identified as Sanduleak -69° 202a, a blue supergiant. This was an unexpected identification, because at the time a blue supergiant was not considered a possibility for a supernova event in existing models of high mass stellar evolution. Current understanding is that the progenitor was a binary system, the stars of which merged about 20,000 years before the explosion, producing a blue supergiant. Difficulties persist with this interpretation.
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