While primitive humans of the Middle Paleolithic hunted prey and sheltered in caves in Africa, a distant star eighteen times more massive than the Sun, located faraway in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) endured a catastrophic collapse as it reached the end of its life. As the star caved in, its outer layers rebounded off its dense core and blasted outwards, ripping the star apart in a supernova. Some 160,000 years later the light of this supernova, travelling at 300 million kilometres per second, finally reached Earth to shine in Southern Hemisphere skies on 24 February 1987.
Twenty-five years later supernova (SN) 1987A, as it has become known, is giving astronomers an unprecedented look at what happens to a massive star before and after it explodes. A careful perusal of star charts prior to the supernova allowed the exact star that exploded – Sanduleak (Sk) –69° 202 – to be identified. Sk –69° 202 had been a luminous blue supergiant located on the edge of the great Tarantula Nebula, a giant star-forming region in the LMC. Here stars are born fast and die hard, the glowing veils of the nebula littered with the whorls of ancient supernova remnants – SN 1987A was merely the latest addition to its collection….