Massive stars that are nearing the end of their life do not fade away quietly. Instead, stars several times the mass of our sun can erupt in a violent supernova, blasting their contents across the universe. In reality, all heavy elements—the carbon in your bones, the metal in your computer—were created in a star’s core and dispersed throughout the universe by a supernova.
In the span of around 10 seconds, a rush of neutrinos (of all kinds) carries away a tremendous quantity of a supernova’s energy, a staggering 99 percent. The core of a collapsing star is extremely dense, but neutrinos interact so infrequently that they flee from the center even faster than light. As a result, neutrino observatories will be the first sites on Earth to see a supernova, and they may be used to guide optical telescopes to the correct portion of the sky to see the supernova’s light arrival. The Supernova Early Warning System, or SNEWS, connects many neutrino detectors, triggering experiments to record and save more data if a sudden flood of neutrinos (meaning a supernova) occurs.
A supernova is estimated to occur once every 10 to 50 years in a galaxy like the Milky Way. In 1987, scientists caught neutrinos from a supernova in the neighboring Large Magellanic Cloud, but there haven’t been any since. Researchers anticipate to collect substantially more data the next time a supernova goes off, with a number of massive neutrino detectors currently operational (and more planned for the following decade). A supernova in our galaxy is expected to produce 5,000 to 8,000 neutrino events in a single detector. In comparison, the 1987 supernova (SN 1987A) produced 25 neutrino events that were recorded by three detectors.
The data from a supernova can be used to learn more about neutrinos, such as how they evolve over great distances and how to place limitations on their mass. They can also be utilized to understand more about the development of neutron stars and black holes, as well as the life cycle of stars.