The Kepler space telescope—which is technically broken but still doing just fine, thank you—just caught a glimpse of something spectacular. It saw the burst of light thrown off by a star as it explodes, and caught it in the optical wavelength. That is to say, visible light.
There was a decent amount of luck involved to be looking at the right moment, but also a huge amount of human effort. The research team behind the discovery, led by astrophysics professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, Peter Garnavich, sifted through visual data from 500 galaxies and 50 trillion stars, pouring over the every-30-minute snapshots until they found the burst in question, according to NASA. The boom they found was some 700 million light years away, and the start behind it was 300 times the size of our sun.
The supernova captured was a Type II. It's a fun little event in which the core of the gigantic star—in this case one large enough to hold the Earth's entire orbit inside it—collapses, allowing the star's outer parts to race towards the center at speeds near one quarter the speed of light. The star's innards don't collapse completely though, and so when the falling outer edges eventually meet up with the new, smaller core, they bounce back violently, which creates a magnificent "shock breakout.”
While obviously destructive, explosions like these are in part responsible for life in the universe. As Steve Howell, project scientist for NASA's Kepler and K2 missions at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley puts it:
All heavy elements in the universe come from supernova explosions. For example, all the silver, nickel, and copper in the earth and even in our bodies came from the explosive death throes of stars. Life exists because of supernovae.
Even so, best say a few hundred million light years away.
From: Popular Mechanics.