Deaths and Afterlives of Stars

October 2018

Briefing date: October 4, 2018 (3:30pm EST)


Dr. Emma Marcucci (Space Telescope Science Institute)


  • Dr. Bethany Cobb Kung (George Washington University)

  • Dr. Elizabeth Ferrara (University of Maryland / NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)

  • Prof. Lynn Cominsky (Sonoma State University)

 Slide presentation:

Transcript and audio recording:

Additional resources:


As a high-mass star consumes its available fuel and comes to the end of its lifecycle, it dies in a stellar explosion called a supernova or hypernova. These processes can release an extremely energetic burst of electromagnetic energy, called a gamma-ray burst (GRB). The remnants of these explosive deaths can continue to release high-energy bursts in the form of pulsars, mergers of neutron stars, or the collapse of material into black holes. GRBs last from milliseconds to hundreds of seconds, and are the brightest source of electromagnetic energy in the universe when they occur. The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this summer, and the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory have studied the high-energy outputs of these phenomena and enabled multi-messenger astronomy to better understand them. For example, in August 2017 Fermi and Swift, in combination with other NASA missions, were able to study the electromagnetic output of a neutron star merger initially found through the detection of gravitational waves by LIGO. Astronomers study these later stages of stellar lifecycles to address fundamental questions about our knowledge and understanding of the universe, such as “how does the universe work” and “how did we get here”?

In this briefing, speakers will share content about the deaths of massive stars and the high-energy remnants of massive stars (pulsars) and how NASA’s high-energy missions provide insight into these processes. Dr. Kung will describe what leads to the death of massive stars, how certain stars die in the extra-spectacular manner of a GRB, and how the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory has helped astronomers to study GRBs. Dr. Ferrara will discuss how neutron stars are formed, and how Fermi’s observation of a particular GRB led to a discovery that captured the attention of astronomers around the world. The briefing will also include a review by Prof. Cominsky of related educator guides, which include science content and relevant activities, on this subject matter.


Dr. Emma Marcucci is an Education and Outreach Scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute. She received her Ph.D. in planetary geology from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2013. As a Postdoctoral Fellow, she worked with satellite stereo images to derive topographic models of locations that lack good elevation information, such as locations in Alaska and on Mars and Mercury. Dr. Marcucci is now part of the Office of Public Outreach at STScI, sharing the science of Hubble and Webb with the general public and astrophysics content as a member of the Universe of Learning, an Astrophysics-based STEM learning and literacy program funded through NASA SMD.

Dr. Bethany Cobb Kung is an astronomer and an Associate Professor of Honors and Physics at the George Washington University. She graduated from Williams College in 2002, majoring in astrophysics and psychology, and received her Ph.D. in astronomy at Yale University in 2008 for research on massive stellar explosions called gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). From 2008 to 2010, she did research at the University of California, Berkeley as a National Science Foundation Astronomy & Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow. At GW, Dr. Kung uses ground-based telescopes to study GRBs at optical/infrared wavelengths in order to better understand both the nature of GRB progenitors and the mechanisms by which they occur. Most recently, she contributed to the study of the first electromagnetic counterpart detected following a gravitational wave signal, which was produced by the merger of two neutron stars. As a dedicated educator, she specializes in teaching astronomy and physics to non-science majoring students and was awarded GW's 2016 Morton A. Bender Teaching Award. She also works on many fronts to improve teaching at GW and is active in the scholarship of teaching and learning in order to share best practices with the larger community of astronomy/science educators. She is a profound science-fiction geek who enjoys sharing her love of astronomy with anyone who will listen!.

Dr. Elizabeth C. Ferrara is the Deputy Lead Scientist for the Fermi Science Support Center, and is Research Faculty in the Department of Astronomy at University of Maryland, College Park. She studies gamma-ray sources of unknown origin, using observations at other wavelengths to discover new pulsars, rapidly spinning neutron stars left behind after a supernova explosion. Dr. Ferrara has been an active part of the Fermi mission since 2005, serving as the Instrument Operations Lead for the spacecraft through the launch and activation phases. In 2009, she joined the Fermi science team, working to ensure that scientists around the globe have the resources they need to include Fermi in their research. Dr. Ferrara received a PhD in Astronomy from Georgia State University in 2000. In her spare time, she enjoys ballroom dancing, scuba diving, and is an avid player of D&D..

Prof. Lynn Cominsky is the Chair of the Physics and Astronomy Department at Sonoma State University (SSU), where she has been on the faculty for over thirty years. Prof. Cominsky is the founder and director of SSU’s Education and Public Outreach Group, which develops educational materials for NASA, NSF and the US Department of Education. She is a Fellow of the California Council on Science and Technology, the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the California Academy of Sciences. Recent awards include the 2014 Aerospace Awareness award from the Women in Aerospace organization, the 2015 Sally Ride Education Award from the American Astronautical Society, the 2016 Education Prize from the American Astronomical Society, the 2016 Wang Family Excellence Award from the California State University, and the 2017 Frank. J. Malina Astronautics Medal from the International Astronautical Federation.