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Suspected supernova baffles astronomers

Thought to be a supernova, an extraordinary bright light 3.8 billion light years away has puzzled astronomers. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope will be deployed to help scientists come up with answers.

It is being dubbed the super supernova, and it is out of this world - both in terms of distance and brightness.

The brightest exploding star ever seen by humans is at least 20 times brighter than our entire Milky Way Galaxy - perhaps even 50 times brighter.

At its peak, it was 570 billion times brighter than our own sun. But at a distance of 3.8 billion light years, earthlings won't be needing sunglasses for this ultra bright light.

While the lay person may ask, "How can something be so bright?" The scientists are asking, "How does it get all of that energy?"

Even among supernovas this one, named ASASSN-15lh, is twice as bright as any other exploding star witnessed by humans. The acronym stands for All-Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae and pronounced "assassin."

The bright light was first discovered seven months ago by a team of Chinese and American researchers. Their research was published Thursday in the journal "Science."

So bright it is surreal

Lead author Subo Dong of China's Peking University said when he learned the magnitude of the discovery last summer he was "too excited to sleep the rest of the night." Fellow researcher Benjamin Shappee of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, California, at first didn't believe the results, which seemed "surreal."

"Discoveries like this are the reason I am an astronomer," Shappee said. "Nature is extremely clever and it is often more imaginative than we can be."

Watch video 00:53

Unraveling the mystery of supernovas

Up next for the scientists is to figure out the mammoth power source behind the supernova. NASA's Hubble Space Telescope will be called upon to try and help come up with some answers.

Understanding ASASSN-15lh's power source "may lead to new thinking and new observations of the whole class of super luminous supernova," Dong said.

"The explosion's mechanism and power source remain shrouded in mystery," Dong said. "All known theories meet serious challenges in explaining the immense amount of energy ASASSN-15lh has radiated."

Perhaps it's not even a supernova at all. One alternative theory is that the object at the center of the blast is a very rare type of star known as magnetar, which spins rapidly and has an ultra strong magnetic field.

Or, it may not be a supernova or a magnetar, according to Krzysztof Stanek, a co-principal researcher at Ohio State University.

It may be "unusual nuclear activity around a supermassive blackhole," according to an OSU statement. "It would be something never before seen in the center of a galaxy."

bik/sms (AP, Reuters, AFP)

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