7. Supernova 1987A

Stars produce energy from nuclear fusion reactions in their cores, where the light elements making up the bulk of the star are compressed and heated by gravity until they fuse into heavier elements. There is a limit to this, however, because once iron is produced in the core no more energy can be extracted from it. Fusing iron requires an input of energy. As iron accumulates, the layers near the core collapse inwards, because not enough energy is being produced to hold them up. At a certain point, the collapse speeds up suddenly and catastrophically, the whole core of the star collapsing in a few seconds. This releases an enormous amount of gravitational energy, fusing heavier elements and initiating nuclear reactions in the outer parts of the star, which blow off in a vast explosion. The star has turned into a supernova, one of the most energetic phenomena in the universe. A supernova can, briefly, shine brighter than the entire galaxy of 100 billion (1011) stars containing it.

Historically, supernovae were detected visually, when a “new star” suddenly appeared in the night sky, shining brightly for a few weeks before fading away from sight. We have reliable records of visible supernovae appearing in the years 1006, 1054, 1181, 1572, and 1604, as well as unconfirmed but probable events occurring in 185 and 393. These supernovae all occurred within our own Milky Way Galaxy, so were close enough to be visible to the naked eye. Since 1604, there have been no supernovae detected in our Galaxy – which is a bit of a shame because the telescope was invented around 1608, just too late to observe the most recent one.

Astronomers have used telescopes to observe supernovae in other galaxies since the late 19th century. Almost none of these are visible to the naked eye. But in 1987 a supernova occurred in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf galaxy satellite of our own, making it the nearest supernova ever observed in the telescopic era. It reached magnitude 3, making it as bright as a middling star in our sky. It was first seen by independent observers in Chile and New Zealand on 24 February 1987.

The Large Magellanic Cloud is visible from the southern hemisphere of Earth, and in the north up to a latitude around 21°N. It is never visible from any point further north. And so supernova 1987A (the first supernova detected in 1987) was never visible from any point further north than 21°N.

Supernova 1987A

Supernova 1987A and the Large Magellanic Cloud. SN 1987A is the bright star just right of the centre of the image. (Photo: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International by the European Southern Observatory.)

When a supernova explosion occurs, the collapsing star emits vast quantities of matter and radiation into the surrounding space. Visible light is just one part of the radiation. SN 1987A also emitted gamma rays, x-rays, and ultraviolet light, the latter two of which were detected by space-based telescopes. And it also blasted particles into interstellar space: heavy element nuclei, neutrons, electrons, and other subatomic particles. One of the types of particles produced was neutrinos. Neutrinos have such a small mass that so far we’ve been unable to perform any experiment that can distinguish their mass from zero. And this means that they move at close to the speed of light – so close that we’ve never made any observation that shows them to move any slower.

At the moment of collapse, SN 1987A emitted a huge burst of neutrinos. These travelled through intergalactic space and some of the neutrinos made it to Earth, where some of them were detected. This neutrino burst was detected almost simultaneously at three different neutrino observatories in different parts of the world:

While a total of 24 neutrinos might not sound like a lot, this is significantly higher than the background detection rate of neutrinos from other sources such as our sun and general cosmic rays from random directions in space. And all 24 of these neutrinos were detected within a single 13-second time window – if corrected for the differences in light travel time from SN 1987A to each observatory caused by their locations on the spherical Earth.

You might notice that all three of the detectors listed are in the northern hemisphere. In fact, the southernmost of them is Kamioka, at 36° 20′ 24″ N. This means that the Large Magellanic Cloud, and SN 1987A in particular, are not visible in the sky at any of these detector locations. This fact by itself provides fairly convincing evidence to most people that the Earth cannot be flat, but Flat Earth enthusiasts propose various solutions for the limited visibility of celestial objects from different parts of the Earth. In Flat Earth theory, all visible stars and galaxies are above the plane of the Earth, and obscured from some parts by distance or intervening objects. This obviously requires SN 1987A to be above the plane of the Flat Earth.

In fact, at this point it might seem that the spherical Earth has a problem: If SN 1987A is not visible from the locations of the neutrino detectors, then how did they detect neutrinos from it? The answer is that neutrinos are extremely elusive particles – they barely interact with matter at all. Neutrinos are known to pass right through the Earth with ease. So although the spherical Earth blocked the light from SN 1987A from reaching the neutrino observatories, it did not stop the neutrinos. The neutrinos passed through the Earth to reach the observatories.

Astronomers estimate SN 1987A released around 1058 neutrinos. The blast was 168,000 light years away, so at the distance of Earth, the number of neutrinos passing through the Earth would be approximately 3×1020 neutrinos per square metre. The Kamiokande-II detector is a cylinder of water 16 metres high and 15.6 metres in diameter, so nearly 1023 SN 1987A neutrinos would have passed through it, leading to just 11 detections. This matches the expected detection rate for neutrinos very well.

Additionally, the Kamioka and Irvine-Michigan-Brookhaven detectors are directional – they can determine the direction from which observed neutrinos arrive. They arrived coming up from underground, not down from the sky. The observed directions at both detectors correspond to the position of the Large Magellanic Cloud and SN1987A on the far side of the spherical Earth [1][2].

Kamiokande-II results

Distribution of SN 1987A neutrino detections at Kamiokande-II in energy of produced electrons and angle relative to the direction of the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). Detected electrons are produced by two different processes, the first is rapid and highly aligned with neutrino direction, while the second is a slower secondary particle generation process and randomises direction uniformly. Neutrinos 1 and 2 (the earliest in the burst) are aligned directly with the LMC, and the remainder are distributed uniformly. This is statistically consistent with the burst having originated from the LMC. Figure reproduced from [1].

In a flat Earth model, SN 1987A would have to be simultaneously above the plane of the Earth (to be visible from the southern hemisphere) and below it (for the neutrino burst to be visible coming up from under the plane of the Earth). This is self-contradictory. However the observations of SN 1987A are all consistent with the Earth being a globe.

References:

[1] Hirata, K.; Kajita, T.; Koshiba, M.; Nakahata, M.; Oyama, Y.; Sato, N.; Suzuki, A.; Takita, M.; Totsuka, Y.; Kifune, T.; Suda, T.; Takahashi, K.; Tanimori, T.; Miyano, K.; Yamada, M.; Beier, E. W.; Feldscher, L. R.; Kim, S. B.; Mann, A. K.; Newcomer, F. M.; Van, R.; Zhang, W.; Cortez, B. G. “Observation of a neutrino burst from the supernova SN1987A”. Physical Review Letters, 58, p. 1490-1493, 1987. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.58.1490

[2] Bratton, C. B.; Casper, D.; Ciocio, A.; Claus, R.; Crouch, M.; Dye, S. T.; Errede, S.; Gajewski, W.; Goldhaber, M.; Haines, T. J.; Jones, T. W.; Kielczewska, D.; Kropp, W. R.; Learned, J. G.; Losecco, J. M.; Matthews, J.; Miller, R.; Mudan, M.; Price, L. R.; Reines, F.; Schultz, J.; Seidel, S.; Sinclair, D.; Sobel, H. W.; Stone, J. L.; Sulak, L.; Svoboda, R.; Thornton, G.; van der Velde, J. C. “Angular distribution of events from SN1987A”. Physical Review D, 37, p. 3361-3363, 1988. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevD.37.3361