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Just what the title indicates.

Is a supernova over instantaneously? Or, does the (for want of a better word) explosion continue for a while? What is/are the order of timescales involved?

EDIT: Following the posted replies/comments I figure what I mean to ask is the duration for which the supernova continues to release copious amounts of energy.

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Of course it takes a finite time. How long a supernova takes depends on what exactly you mean. If you are referring to the length of time the debris expands and glows visibly then you're talking weeks. More info –  Michael Brown Apr 22 '13 at 9:46
here's a video that appears to go into some detail, I've watched it/seen the talk though. vimeo.com/28031074 –  Nic Apr 22 '13 at 14:00
@Nic: Thank you for the link (+: Can't watch it, but i shall listen –  Everyone Apr 22 '13 at 17:21
@MichaelBrown: Wouldn't the glow be restricted to core explosion? The debris wouldn't glow, would it? –  Everyone Apr 22 '13 at 17:28

4 Answers 4

Supernovae can take well over a week to reach maximum luminosity, and they stay rather bright for months after the peak. This just goes to show how much energy is involved in these event.

I was going to assemble a collage of light curves from my own research, but then I realized this has already been done at Wikimedia Commons:

supernova light curves

These are rather idealized curves, but they do get the point across. In all cases, the ejecta is expanding at thousands of kilometers per second for most of the process. As the cloud of material thins out, its opacity drops and it is less able to heat up from any energy deposited on its interior surface. Add to that the fact that freely expanding gas will cool (think of air being let out of a pressurized tank).

In order to glow for so long, there must be an energy storage mechanism at work, slowly depositing energy into the gas so that it can give off light. For Type II supernovae, part of this energy is the latent heat of ionization of hydrogen - most of the hydrogen was initially ionized, and the electrons slowly recombine with the protons, giving off photons. Type I supernovae are defined as not showing signs of hydrogen in their spectra, so clearly this won't work. Instead, especially for Type Ia, energy is primarily obtained as radioactive byproducts of the original explosion decay. The most important decay chain is $$ {}^{56}\mathrm{Ni} \stackrel{\text{6 days}}{\longrightarrow} {}^{56}\mathrm{Co} \stackrel{\text{77 days}}{\longrightarrow} {}^{56}\mathrm{Fe}, $$ and in fact some of the slopes of the piecewise linear Type Ia light curve can be attributed to these half-lives.

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If you're asking about the duration of the explosion of supernovae, then it's done within a few seconds (the number can still be less) - similar to a nuclear fission. But, the cloud surrounding the explosion (i.e) the matter remnant that is thrown off can still remain expanding for years and it can emit EM radiation in the form of $\gamma$-rays and X-rays which can be detected. This result has a similarity with that of the big bang. The historical light from the big-bang (thought of as) is still detected in the microwave region due to redshifts. For example, SN-1987A has been observed by the Hubble for over 15 years and there's a time lapse sequence for the explosion in Wiki...

(In case of atom bomb, a mushroom-kinda cloud is formed which expands slowly and so, the matter can cover high altitudes, which can be easily tracked by GPS satellites)

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Note further that SNR IC 443 might be as old as 30 kyr and is observed in most wavebands (radio, optical, X-ray, $\gamma$-ray). There are others around this upper bound as well (W51C, W44, etc). –  Kyle Kanos Nov 8 at 3:35

I love theoretical physics, I am not capable of the math, but here's a neat comparison. This is one of many proposed solutions to the mean free path of a photon produced in the core of the sun, this one says 4000 years to travel to emission surface...pretty wild drunken walk indeed! This is due to the assumed density of the core and various assumed layers making up the solar structure.


SN1987A was several solar masses. The equations relevant to this phenomenon come up with...somehow, a kinetically powered explosion lasting a few days, which manages to propegate through several solar masses of matter.

All things being equal it would seem that a core collapse supernova explosion for a several solar mass star should take alot longer to manifest visually.

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I don't believe this helps any, as supernovae don't really have a core anymore (it's exploding material!) for photons to randomly walk. As far as I have been taught, the explosion itself, for a core-collapse that is SN 1987A, is on the order of a second, not days that you claim--can you provide a source for this information? –  Kyle Kanos Sep 15 at 20:08

I have been researching the 1987A supernova personally and I can say through my study of supernova and particularly 1987A, time lapse in respect to peaks of brightness and naked eye, live observation is completely plausible, realistic and proven.

I personally have been very hesitant in posting anything like this for fear of being ridiculed yet I was camping in the countryside near my home in Mullumbimby nsw Australia with a friend who wanted to stay up past midnight (we were around 10 at the time 1990-91) and we were lying in an old two man tent without the tarp and just the see through fly screen therefor we could observe the entire night sky - well we past our midnight objective of staying awake and started to bed down when the entire field (paddock) started to flash incredibly much like a bright lightning storm, yet there was no storm for it was oblivious a clear warm night and the flashing was everywhere and consistent as we looked to the night sky which was practically impossible not to - we observed a supernova explosion which started as a more condense bright cloud and (to the naked eye) spread out slowly(as star dust), spreading out and sparkling and eventually fading, my friend and I discussed it briefly and fell asleep (being 10 we had no idea of its rarity or significance)

so I can say confidently that the above answers are very helpful for through my research and personal observation that although 1987A was first observed in 1987 and I observed this in 1990 - it has been proven and recorded that it burnt or continued to be observed 15 years on if not longer. Recorded Time lapse also show that the supernova will continue to vary in its brightness and intensity over many years.

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