Supernova 1987A: The Supernova of a Lifetime

April 2017


Dr. Brandon Lawton (STScI)


  • Dr. Kari Frank (Pennsylvania State University)
  • Dr. Steven Boggs (UC San Diego)
  • Dr. Robert Kirshner (Harvard University and Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation)
  • Kimberly Arcand (Chandra/SAO)

Slide presentation:

Additional resources:

Briefing date: April 13, 2017 (3:30pm)


How does the universe work? This is a primary question that NASA astrophysics missions explore as they study the physics of the cosmos. Supernovae are some of the most explosive events in the universe, but studying these stellar death throes can be difficult since they happen in a cosmic second. Adding to the difficulty, astronomers do not know when and where these explosions will occur. In 1987, the study of stellar death was given a fortuitous boost when the closest supernova seen in hundreds of years exploded in our cosmic backyard. Over the past 30 years, many of NASA’s astrophysics missions have observed the relic explosion of this massive star as it propagates through space. The supernova’s close proximity is giving us unprecedented views of the immediate impacts a star’s demise can have on its surroundings. NASA’s observations are also giving us clues into the type of star the supernova came from, and how it exploded. During this Universe of Learning Science Briefing, experts will discuss what we have learned from supernova 1987A. There will also be connections to related resources you can use to engage with your audiences.


Dr. Kari Frank is a Research Associate in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University, in State College, Pennsylvania. Her expertise is in studying hot, messy objects by looking at their X-ray emission. She received her PhD in physics from Purdue University, where she studied X-ray emission from galaxy clusters, the largest objects in the universe. Since then, she has been using the Chandra X-ray Observatory and other X-ray telescopes to study supernova remnants, including the unique SN 1987A. Dr. Frank has taken the lead analyzing images and spectra from the Chandra observations of SN 1987A for the last 4 years. 

Dr. Steven Boggs is the dean of the University of California San Diego Division of Physical Sciences. Professor Boggs received his B.S. in Physics, summa cum laude, from the University of Illinois, Urbana/Champaign in 1991. He received his Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1998, where he held a NASA graduate student research fellowship. He was a Millikan Postdoctoral Fellow at the California Institute of Technology before returning to join the UC Berkeley Physics Department in July 2000. Professor Boggs became Chair of the department in July of 2013 and held that post until January of 2017 when he accepted his current position at UC San Diego. His primary research interest is the detailed measurement of radioactive nuclei produced in the inner regions of supernova explosions as probes of the fundamental physical processes in which they are created.

Dr. Robert Kirshner leads the science program at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which makes over $100 million in grants for basic science each year. An astronomer, he served on the faculty at Harvard for 30 years before moving to the Moore Foundation in 2015. His work applying supernovae to trace cosmic expansion was a fundamental contribution to the discovery of cosmic acceleration in 1998. A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, Kirshner was awarded the National Academy's 2014 Watson Medal and the 2015 Wolf Prize in Physics.
Supernova 1987A was the brightest exploding star seen since Kepler's in 1604. Robert Kirshner saw it in 1987 and has been studying it ever since, mostly with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Kimberly Kowal Arcand is the Visualization Lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which has its headquarters at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Arcand is a leading expert in studying the perception and comprehension of high-energy data visualization across the novice-expert spectrum. As a science data story teller she combines her background in molecular biology and computer science with her current work in the fields of astronomy and physics.  She was a nominated "Changemaker" for the White House State of Women Summit in 2016, and recently won the Smithsonian Achievement Award in 2016. Arcand is also an award-winning producer, director and author. She presented on how to 3D print a supernova remnant at a 2016 TEDx event.