Supernova 1987A Decoded

Supernova 1987A is the closest supernova event since the invention of the telescope. It was first seen in February 1987 in the nearby Magellanic cloud, a dwarf companion galaxy of the Milky Way, and only 169,000 light years from Earth. Close observation since 1987 has now provided proof that supernovae are catastrophic electrical discharges focused on a star.

Supernova 1987a

The enigmatic and beautiful structure of SN1987A with its three axial rings. The brightening of the equatorial ring is obvious. The two bright stars are just in the field of view and are not associated with the supernova. Credit: NASA/STScI/CfA/P.Challis.

A supernova is one of the most energetic events witnessed in the universe. The accepted explanation is that it occurs at the end of a star’s lifetime, or red giant stage, when the star’s nuclear fuel is exhausted. There is no more release of nuclear energy in the core so the huge star collapses in on itself. If sufficiently massive, the imploding layers of the star are thought to “rebound” when they hit the core, resulting in an explosion, and the blast wave ejects the star’s envelope into interstellar space. The bright equatorial ring is caused by the collision of exploded matter from the star with the remnants of an earlier stellar “wind.” The two faint rings are a problem. The best that theorists have been able to manage is to postulate some kind of rotating beam from an assumed supernova remnant, sweeping and lighting up a shell of gas expelled at an earlier epoch. The ad hoc nature of these explanations is obvious.

The detection of a pulsar remnant after some supernovae is explained by the implosion of the stellar core to produce a neutron star. Pulsars emit bursts of radiation up to thousands of times a second. It is believed that a pulsar must be a super-collapsed stellar object that can spin up to thousands of times a second and emit a rotating beam of X-rays (like a lighthouse). Commonsense suggests that this mechanical model is wrong when some pulsars rev beyond the redline, even for such a bizarre object.

A recent example of conventional thinking can be seen on the Chandra website. On August 17, a news story was posted:

Supernova 1987A: Fast Forward to the Past.

SN1987a ring in x-ray and optical

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/S.Park & D.Burrows.; Optical: NASA/STScI/CfA/P.Challis

Recent Chandra observations have revealed new details about the fiery ring surrounding the stellar explosion that produced Supernova 1987A. The data give insight into the behavior of the doomed star in the years before it exploded, and indicate that the predicted spectacular brightening of the circumstellar ring has begun.. The site of the explosion was traced to the location of a blue supergiant star called Sanduleak-69º 202 (SK-69 for short) that had a mass estimated at approximately 20 Suns.

Subsequent optical, ultraviolet and X-ray observations have enabled astronomers to piece together the following scenario for SK-69: about ten million years ago the star formed out of a dark, dense, cloud of dust and gas; roughly a million years ago, the star lost most of its outer layers in a slowly moving stellar wind that formed a vast cloud of gas around it; before the star exploded, a high-speed wind blowing off its hot surface carved out a cavity in the cool gas cloud.

The intense flash of ultraviolet light from the supernova illuminated the edge of this cavity to produce the bright ring seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. In the meantime the supernova explosion sent a shock wave rumbling through the cavity. In 1999, Chandra imaged this shock wave, and astronomers have waited expectantly for the shock wave to hit the edge of the cavity, where it would encounter the much denser gas deposited by the red supergiant wind, and produce a dramatic increase in X-radiation.

The latest data from Chandra and the Hubble Space Telescope indicate that this much-anticipated event has begun. Optical hot-spots now encircle the ring like a necklace of incandescent diamonds. The Chandra image reveals multimillion-degree gas at the location of the optical hot-spots. X-ray spectra obtained with Chandra provide evidence that the optical hot-spots and the X-ray producing gas are due to a collision of the outward-moving supernova shock wave with dense fingers of cool gas protruding inward from the circumstellar ring.

Diagram of supernova 1987a

Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

These fingers were produced long ago by the interaction of the high-speed wind with the dense circumstellar cloud. The collision of the outward-moving supernova shock wave (yellow) with the dense fingers of cool gas produce bright spots (white) of optical and X-ray emission. The expanding debris (blue) of the exploded star lags behind the shock wave and, except for a thin shell around the outer edge (gold), is too cool to produce X-rays.

The dense fingers and the visible circumstellar ring represent only the inner edge of a much greater, unknown amount of matter ejected long ago by SK-69. As the shock wave moves into the dense cloud, ultraviolet and X-radiation from the shock wave will heat much more of the circumstellar gas.

Then, as remarked by Richard McCray, one of the scientists involved in the Chandra research, “Supernova 1987A will be illuminating its own past.”

On the contrary, Supernova 1987A illuminates only how poorly the theory of supernova explosions fits the observations.

The official explanatory illustration above is conjectural and relies (again) on invisible matter that the star is supposed to have conveniently pre-released in just the right places and filamentary form to produce the observed effects. To say, “the predicted spectacular brightening of the circumstellar ring” is disingenuous. Neither the presence of the three rings nor the pattern of bright “beads” in the equatorial ring was predicted from theory. “The Hubble images of the rings are quite spectacular and unexpected,” said Dr. Chris Burrows of the European Space Agency and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, when first discovered. “This is an unprecedented and bizarre object. We have never seen anything behave like this before.” The pattern of brightening is not explained by an expanding shock front.

There is a more fundamental problem with SN1987A. The star at the center was found to have been a “blue supergiant.” But a supernova explosion is thought to require a ten-times bigger red supergiant star. There is no evidence that SK-69 was a red supergiant star, emitting a massive stellar wind. The history of the star is not based on observation, it is a fabrication required by the theory.

The axial shape of SN1987A is that of a planetary nebula. Fifty years ago a British scientist, Dr. Charles E. R. Bruce (1902-1979), argued that the bipolar shape, temperatures and magnetic fields of planetary nebulae could be explained as an electrical discharge. Bruce was ideally situated to make the discovery, being both an electrical engineer versed in high-energy lightning behavior and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. He was ignored.

C. E. R. Bruce indicating examples of planetary nebulae which are clearly not simply expanding shells around a central star. Courtesy of E. Crew.

C. E. R. Bruce indicating examples of planetary nebulae which are clearly not simply expanding shells around a central star. Courtesy of E. Crew.

The place to look for real answers is not in abstract astrophysical theory but in the practical experiments and supercomputer simulations of some plasma cosmologists. They unleash the most powerful man-made electrical discharges on this planet. The result is called the “z-pinch.” The term “z-pinch” comes from the usual representation of a current flowing along the z-axis, parallel to the magnetic field. With a strong enough current, the plasma formed by the discharge electromagnetically “pinches” into a string of sausages, donuts and plasma instabilities, along the z-axis.

Electrical discharges (Lichtenberg figures) illuminate the surface of the Z machine at Sandia labs.

Electrical discharges (Lichtenberg figures) illuminate the surface of the Z machine, the world's most powerful X-ray source, during a recent accelerator shot. The most recent advance gave an X-ray power of about 290 trillion watts for billionths of a second, about 80 times the entire world's output of electricity.

Since Bruce, and following the pioneering work of Hannes Alfven on an electric circuit model of stars, it has become clear to plasma cosmologists that the electrical z-pinch effect is instrumental in forming stars. Once formed, stars continue to be lit by electrical power delivered throughout the universe by cosmic transmission lines known as Birkeland current filaments. These giant filaments can be traced by their radio transmissions. Stars also trace the Birkeland currents in galaxies in the same way that electric streetlights trace the routes of electrical cables.

Stars are an electrical, not a thermonuclear, phenomenon. Consequently, a star’s size, color and spectrum tell us nothing about its age. A red supergiant star is huge because it is under low electrical stress. It is not at the end of its life. And being under low stress it is not expected to explode. However, a blue star is under extreme electrical stress. We do not have to advance the ad hoc postulate that SN1987A was a red supergiant before it exploded.

Changes in the equatorial ring of SN1987a over time.

Here we see the changes in the equatorial ring over time. Some astronomers wrote, "The origin of the circumstellar ring is the outstanding mystery of SN 1987A. Why is the ring so thin, and so nearly circular? Why is it expanding so slowly? Today we have no clear answers to these questions. But we do know that the ring around SN1987A is not unique. Many planetary nebulae have remarkably similar bipolar structures."

How does a star explode? The conventional “implosion followed by explosion” model has many shortcomings. An electric star, on the other hand, has internal charge separation which can power a star-wide, expulsive lightning-flash. The star relieves electrical stress by fissioning or blowing off charged matter. A star also has electromagnetic energy stored in an equatorial current ring. Matter is ejected equatorially by discharges between the current ring and the star. Our own Sun does it regularly on a small scale. However, if the stored energy reaches some critical value it may be released in the form of a bipolar discharge, or ejection of matter, along the rotational axis. The remnant of SN 1987A shows such a bipolar ejection in the form of two blobs of matter (inside the bright ring).

A companion star may initiate a stellar discharge that results in fissioning. It is significant in this context that an unexplained and much-disputed “Mystery Spot” appeared along the line joining the two blobs and was seen briefly a couple of months after the explosion and then quickly faded from sight. The spot was too far away to have been ejected by the supernova and its brightness (10% of the supernova) was too great to be explained by reflection off a cloud of matter. It may have been a faint companion that triggered, or was a part of the circuit of the electrical supernova discharge.

The bright beaded ring shows that matter has been ejected equatorially. However, the ring is not expanding. The other two fainter rings are also arranged above and below the star on the same axis and show similar but fainter “bright spots”.

Conventionally, a shock wave from an exploding star should show spherical, rather than axial, symmetry. And there is no particular reason why the shock front should form a ring of bright spots. We should expect some visible indication of the spherical cavity.

Stars are an electrical plasma discharge phenomenon. Electrical energy produces heavy elements near the surface of all stars. The energy is transferred over cosmic distances via Birkeland current transmission lines. The energy may be released gradually or stored in a stellar circuit and unleashed catastrophically. It is these cosmic circuits that are the energy source for the supernova explosion – not the star. That is why the energy output of some nebulae exceeds that available from the central star. See Shocks from Eta Carina.

The electrical energy released in supernova fissioning is prodigious, so it is no surprise that there is an abundance of heavy elements and neutrinos dispersed into space by the stellar “lightning flash.”

The crucial evidence for the electrical nature of supernovae must come from experiment and observation.

Anthony L. Peratt, Fellow, IEEE, published a seminal paper in the IEEE Transactions on Plasma Science, Vol. 31, No. 6, December 2003. It was titled “Characteristics for the Occurrence of a High-Current, Z-Pinch Aurora as Recorded in Antiquity.” In it he explained the unusual characteristics of a high-energy plasma discharge. He discussed mega-ampere particle beams and showed their characteristic 56- and 28-fold symmetry. He wrote:

“A solid beam of charged particles tends to form hollow cylinders that may then filament into individual currents. When observed from below, the pattern consists of circles, circular rings of bright spots, and intense electrical discharge streamers connecting the inner structure to the outer structure.

A 0.6-mm-thick titanium witness plate that has been placed 15 cm in front of a 100 kilo-Gauss, sub-megaampere charged particle beam.

This photograph shows a 0.6-mm-thick titanium witness plate that has been placed 15 cm in front of a 100 kilo-Gauss, sub-megaampere charged particle beam. Initially, the particle beam was cylindrical but after traveling the 15 cm has filamented. In the sub-gigaampere range, the maximum number of self-pinched filaments allowed before the cylindrical magnetic field will no longer split into "islands" for the parameters above has been found to be 56.

These results verify that individual current filaments were maintained by their azimuthal self-magnetic fields, a property lost by increasing the number of electrical current filaments. The scaling is constant for a given hollow beam thickness, from microampere beams to multi-megaampere beams and beam diameters of millimeters to thousands of kilometers.

This scaling of plasma phenomena has been extended to more than 14 orders of magnitude, so the bright ring of supernova 1987A can be considered as a stellar scale “witness plate” with the equatorial ejecta sheet acting as the “plate” for the otherwise invisible axial Birkeland currents.

Peratt adds:

“Because the electrical current-carrying filaments are parallel, they attract via the Biot-Savart force law, in pairs but sometimes three. This reduces the 56 filaments over time to 28 filaments, hence the 56 and 28 fold symmetry patterns. In actuality, during the pairing, any number of filaments less than 56 may be recorded as pairing is not synchronized to occur uniformly. However, there are ‘temporarily stable’ (longer state durations) at 42, 35, 28, 14, 7, and 4 filaments. Each pair formation is a vortex that becomes increasingly complex.”

The images of SN 1987A shows the Birkeland currents around the star have paired to a number close to 28. The bright spots show a tendency toward pairing and groups of three. This witness plate model explains why the glowing ring is so nearly circular and is expanding very slowly – unlike a shock front. It is more like a cloud at night moving through the beams of a ring of searchlights.

If the equatorial ring shows the Birkeland currents in the outer sheath of an axial plasma current column, then the supernova outburst is the result of a cosmic z-pinch in the central column, focused on the central star. It is important to note that the z-pinch naturally takes the ubiquitous hourglass shape of planetary nebulae. No special conditions and mysteriously conjured magnetic fields are required.

Experimental and simulation derived geometries for extreme plasma currents in a plasma column.

Experimental and simulation derived geometries for extreme plasma currents in a plasma column. The Birkeland currents will only be visible where the plasma density is high.

It is also the shape of SN1987A with its three rings. It will be instructive for plasma cosmologists to watch closely the development of SN1987A’s “necklace of incandescent diamonds.” I do not expect the ring to grow as a shock-wave-produced ring would be expected to. Some bright spots may be seen to rotate about each other and to merge. It is an opportunity more rare and valuable than a diamond to be able to verify the electric discharge nature of a supernova. Supernova 1987A will be illuminating the future of plasma cosmology!

Plasma cosmologists have not ignored the pulsar, sometimes found in a supernova remnant. Healy and Peratt in “Radiation Properties of Pulsar Magnetospheres: Observation, Theory and Experiment,” concluded:

“the source of the radiation energy may not be contained within the pulsar, but may instead derive either from the pulsar’s interaction with its environment or by energy delivered by an external circuit…. [O]ur results support the ‘planetary magnetosphere’ view, where the extent of the magnetosphere, not emission points on a rotating surface, determines the pulsar emission.”

In other words, we do not require a hypothetical super-condensed object to form a pulsar. A normal stellar remnant undergoing periodic discharges will suffice. Plasma cosmology has the virtue of not requiring neutron stars or black holes to explain compact sources of radiation.

This completes the electrical sketch of supernova 1987A.


This discovery of the electrical nature of supernovae has implications back here on Earth. The extensive interdisciplinary scope of the Electric Universe model is highlighted by Peratt’s recent discovery that objects from antiquity manifest 56- and 28-fold symmetry. These range from concentric petroglyphs around the world to geoglyphs (stone-rings), megaliths, and other constructs. The most renowned of the 56-fold symmetric megaliths is Stonehenge.

An Aerial View of Stonehenge.

An Aerial View of Stonehenge. The view includes the circular bank, ditch, and counterscarp bank. A number of the Aubrey holes are also visible. The Heel Stone can be seen in the lower right.

Our ancestors witnessed a cosmic electrical discharge up close. It raises fundamental issues about the recent history of the Earth and its cargo of life.

The explosion in new understanding will be an intellectual and cultural supernova!

Wal Thornhill

Further reading:
W. Thornhill, The Z-Pinch Morphology of Supernova 1987a and Electric Stars
ISSN : 0093-3813
INSPEC Accession Number: 9618789
Digital Object Identifier : 10.1109/TPS.2007.895423
Date of Current Version : 13 August 2007
Issue Date : Aug. 2007
Sponsored by : IEEE Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society

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