Scientists are agog over the brightest exploding star in 383 years

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Another idea: use sounding rockets to boost detection equipment up 100 miles, allowing a five-minute viewing window of the southern skies before falling back to earth. A third: "Everyone who has got an instrument in his closet is digging it out and petitioning NASA for support to go to Australia and fly it in a balloon," says Marvin Leventhal, a physicist with AT&T's Bell Labs. Leventhal and his collaborator Crawford MacCallum, a physicist with the Sandia Corp., already have their balloon, a plastic monster so huge (600 to 700 ft. tall) that its material could be used to cover the Washington Monument.

University of Iowa Radio Astronomer Robert Mutel is spearheading a drive to fly advanced imaging equipment to seven observatories in the southern hemisphere that lack the sophisticated instruments. Mutel already has several offers from groups around the world to lend some of their own equipment. Indeed, his group has already decided to cannibalize its North Liberty Radio Observatory near Iowa City. Says Mutel: "I'm trying to get the NSF ((National Science Foundation)) to see if it can free up some money. It will be interesting to see how quickly a big bureaucracy can react."

Some astronomers are in less of a hurry, figuring that the best is yet to come. Says Woosley: "Once the photosphere ((the supernova's luminous surface layer)) is gone, that's when it gets interesting." When that shell thins out, months or years from now, astronomers will be able to look inside and "see" the newly born, rapidly spinning neutron star, but with a radio telescope rather than the optical kind.

The problem, explains Princeton Physics Professor Joseph Taylor, is not that a neutron star emits no light but that it is only ten miles across. "If you were close enough," he says, "you'd see a very bright light. But over interstellar distances, it wouldn't be visible." The solution is suggested by the name astronomers gave to known neutron stars: pulsars. The spinning neutron stars have intense magnetic fields generating precisely spaced electromagnetic pulses that can be picked up by radio telescopes. Some 440 pulsars have been discovered so far, all of them thought to be remnants of Type II supernovas. The youngest found to date sits right at the center of the Crab nebula, site of the great supernova of 1054.

How long it takes for a pulsar to develop is one puzzle 1987A may help answer. In addition, says Taylor, scientists would like to learn what kind of supernovas make pulsars. "We have a good idea that stars between eight and 15 times the mass of the sun are in the right range," he says, "but that is still somewhat speculative."

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