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Two suns? No, it's a supernova drawn 6,000 years ago, say scientists

Stone carving in Kashmir
For decades, the stone carving from Kashmir’s Burzahama site were thought to depict a hunting scene. Photograph: Vahia/Tata Reseach Institute

For decades, stone carvings unearthed in the Himalayan territory of Kashmir were thought to depict a hunting scene. But the presence of two celestial objects in the drawings has piqued the interest of a group of Indian astronomers.

They have proposed another theory. According to a study published in the Indian Journal of History of Science, the Kashmir rock drawings may be the oldest depiction of a supernova, the final explosion of a dying star, ever discovered.

Archaeologists found the carvings nearly half a century ago in Kashmir’s Burzahama site, where the oldest settlements have been dated to about 4,300BC. It showed two hunters, a bull, and two beaming disks in the sky initially speculated to be two suns.

Stone carving and sketch
Photograph of the carving (left) and sketch (right). Photograph: Vahia/Tata Reseach Institute

That explanation did not satisfy Mayank Vahia and a team of astrophysicists in India and Germany. “Our first argument was, there cannot be two suns,” Vahia said. “We thought it must have been an object that appeared and attracted the attention of the artists.”

Stars that die in dazzling explosions called supernovas release signals that emanate throughout the universe for thousands of years, allowing astronomers to trace their timing and coordinates.

Crab Nebula
The Crab nebula, which is the result of a bright supernova explosion seen by astronomers in the year 1054, is 6,500 light-years from Earth. Photograph: Space Telescope Science Institut/NASA/ ESA

Vahia and his team searched their catalogue, guided by the ancient depiction. “We needed one that would have been brighter than the moon in the night sky and visible in the daytime,” he said.

They settled on Supernova HB9, a star that exploded around 4,600BC.

Rewinding the map of the sky back that far revealed more clues.

Viewed from Kashmir, the supernova would have occurred somewhere near the Orion constellation. “Which is known as the scene of a hunter,” said Vahia.

“The supernova also went off just above the constellation of Taurus, the bull, which is also seen in the drawing,” Vahia added.

The astronomers no longer believed the ancient artists had depicted a hunting scene illuminated by a spectacular supernova. “They had drawn the entire sky.”

The publication of the study in 2013 went unnoticed outside the scientific community but was picked up by a podcast in December and has become national news in India.

Vahia says the oldest previous records of a supernova were discovered in China and date back to 800BC, so if true, “it’s significantly older”.

This article titled "Two suns? No, it's a supernova drawn 6,000 years ago, say scientists" was written by Michael Safi in Delhi, for The Guardian on Wednesday 10 January 2018 02.53pm

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