In the 1930s Fritz Zwicky, Walter Baade, and Rudolph Minkowski developed several models of supernova events. In a star about to become a Type I supernova, the star's hydrogen is exhausted, and the star's gravity pulling inward overcomes the forces of its thermonuclear fires pushing the material outward. As the core begins to contract, the remaining hydrogen ignites in a shell, swelling the star into a giant and beginning the process of helium burning. Eventually the star is left with a still contracting core of carbon and oxygen. If the star, now a white dwarf, has a nearby stellar companion, it will begin to pull matter from the companion. In many stars the excess matter is blown off periodically as a nova; if it is not, the star continues to get more and more massive until the matter in the core begins to contract again. When the star gets so massive that it passes Chandrasekhar's limit (1.44 times the sun's mass), it collapses very quickly and all of its matter explodes.
Type II supernovas involve massive stars that burn their gases out within a few million years. If the star is massive enough, it will continue to undergo nucleosynthesis after the core has turned to helium and then to carbon. Heavier elements such as phosphorus, aluminum, and sulfur are created in shorter and shorter periods of time until silicon results. It takes less than a day for the silicon to fuse into iron; the iron core gets hotter and hotter and in less than a second the core collapses. Electrons are forced into the nuclei of their atoms, forming neutrons and neutrinos, and the star explodes, throwing as much as 90% of its material into space at speeds exceeding 18,630 mi (30,000 km) per sec. After the supernova explosion, there remains a small, hot neutron star, possibly visible as a pulsar, surrounded by an expanding cloud, such as that seen in the Crab Nebula.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.