Correction.Regular reader James Fincannon emailed me to say that he thinks the image below is an artist’s impression. He is correct. I should have looked more closely at the press release. In reading the actual research paper [pdf] on the results it seems that the VLT did some very sophisticated spectroscopy, thereby measuring the uneven distribution of the velocity and density of the gas around the star. The image below was then created, based largely on Hubble images combined with the new data. In other words, this ground-based telescope did not match the abilities of a space-based telescope in any way. Had the Hubble images not existed the astronomers would have struggled to interpret their spectroscopic data.
Some important astronomy news: The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has released this spectacular image of supernova 1987a, the first and so far only supernova visible to the naked eye since the invention of the telescope.
This image is important for two reasons. First, The data shows that the supernova explosion was not symmetrical, with more material being thrown outward in some directions than in others. This fact confirms what astronomers in recent years have increasingly come to believe: Supernovae explosions are not simple spherical bursts, but chaotic events ripping stars apart in a lopsided manner. Second, this image demonstrates that ground-based telescopes are becoming amazingly good at doing what the Hubble Space Telescope has done routinely for the past two decades. Five years ago, no telescope on the ground could have resolved the inner ring of supernova 1987a. Only Hubble in space had that capability. Now, VLT can do it, almost as well as Hubble. Though a space-based telescope can still beat any ground-based telescope, it is great news that the technology for ground-based telescopes has improved so much, especially since there presently are no plans to replace Hubble.