Emmanouil Chatzopoulos
© Courtesy Of The University Of Texas At Austin McDonald Observatory
Emmanouil Chatzopoulos led team of astronomers.

University of Texas astronomers have discovered one of the brightest exploding stars ever detected, using a modest telescope that photographed the luminous event 3.7 billion light-years away.

Their 2008 discovery was documented in a 50-page article in the March issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

UT astronomy professor J. Craig Wheeler, who has been studying exploding stars, or supernovae, for about 30 years, said the discovery of Supernova 2008am, was "a surprise to me and everyone else" because of its brightness.

Its explosion "produced 100 billion times the energy the sun will ever produce," said Emmanouil Chatzopoulos , a third-year UT doctoral student who led the team of about 10 astronomers that discovered the supernova using an 18-inch telescope. "This is one of the top three ever discovered in terms of brightness."

A spokeswoman for the McDonald Observatory, Rebecca Johnson, said the supernova emitted enough energy in one second to satisfy the power needs of the United States for 1 million times longer than the universe has existed.

The brightness of the star was apparent from the fact that it could be seen from so far away with a telescope, Wheeler said. Astronomers estimate the mass of the star that created the supernova was more than 10 times that of the sun, he added.

Since discovering the supernova, the researchers have spent the past three years doing more investigation and research to confirm its presence.

"There are a lot of people struggling to understand the nature of these very bright stars and why, frankly, Texans are finding them," Wheeler said.

The supernova is one of at least five very bright stars discovered by a team including UT astronomers since 2005, he added.

After the discovery - they used a telescope that robotically scans the sky, taking pictures that sometimes reveal new lights - scientists followed up with other ground-based telescopes, like the Hobby-Eberly telescope at the McDonald Observatory in West Texas and others in California and Michigan.

"Supernovas mark the death of massive stars, but massive stars that undergo this kind of stellar explosion are rare," Chatzopoulos said.

He said that stars constantly battle between gravity and internal pressure but "mostly enjoy a balanced life." Massive stars, though, evolve and keep burning until gravity interferes, creating an explosion that leads supernovae to lose most of their mass.

Scientists can trace all the elements necessary for human life to supernovae, Wheeler said.

"All the elements that make up light and people come out of exploding stars," he added. "Oxygen that we breathe, the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood, the potassium that draws the energy of living molecules has all come out of supernova explosions. There would be no life without (supernovae) creating the fundamental life elements."