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Any of a class of violently exploding stars whose luminosity after eruption suddenly increases many millions of times above its normal level. Like novas, supernovas undergo a tremendous, rapid brightening lasting a few weeks, followed by a slow dimming, and show blue-shifted emission lines on spectroscopy, which implies that hot gases are blown outward. Unlike a nova, a supernova explosion is a catastrophic event for a star, leading to its collapse into a neutron star or black hole. Amounts of its matter equal to the mass of several Suns may be blasted into space with such energy that the exploding star outshines its entire home galaxy. Only seven supernovas are known to have been recorded before the 17th century, the most famous in AD 1054; its remnants are visible today as the Crab Nebula. The closest and most studied supernova in modern times is SN 1987A, which appeared in 1987 in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Supernova explosions release not only tremendous amounts of radio energy and X-rays but also cosmic rays; in addition, they create and fling into interstellar space many of the heavier elements found in the universe, including those forming Earth's solar system.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on supernova, visit Britannica.com.