Ancient Rock Art Discovered in India Shows Mysterious Exploding Star Witnessed Thousands of Years Ago

Remnants of another supernova (not HB9), about a thousand years old. X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/L.Lopez et al; Infrared: Palomar; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA

Earth has only ever hosted two extraordinarily bright objects in its sky, and never at the same time—the sun and the moon trade off dominating the heavens. But every once in a while, something else pops up, the bright corpse of a star that has just exploded after running out of fuel, called a supernova. Astronomers in India now believe that observations of a supernova that exploded thousands of years ago were carved in rock, a theory described in a paper recently published in the Indian Journal of the History of Science, according to an article in Quartz.

The carving was found in Burzahama, a section of Kashmir. It shows two bright, sun-like objects in the sky overlooking a hunting scene. "You cannot have two suns in the sky," co-author Mayank Vahia, an astrophysicist at India's Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, told the podcast The Intersection. So he, an amateur astronomer, and a German colleague wondered if the second sun may actually be an observed supernova.

Scientists and historians already knew that a handful of supernovae had been observed for centuries, since they made their way into records of the time. The oldest confirmed example is a Chinese reference to a "guest star" that appeared in the sky in the year 185 A.D. and stuck around for eight months before fading away.

Unfortunately, rock art is more difficult for archaeologists to date than formal records like the Chinese example. So the team went looking for supernovae that would have been visible from the Burzahama area anywhere between 10,000 B.C. and 2000 B.C. They found just two options and believe the carving represents the older of these two supernovae, called HB9.

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But astronomers have almost as much trouble figuring out when a supernova exploded as archaeologists do pinpointing when a carving was made. Scientists think HB9 exploded sometime between 5000 B.C. and 2000 B.C. In the carving, one of the bright lights would represent this supernova and the other the full moon.

And according to the Indian team, the rest of the carving is also an astronomical record: That theory argues that it doesn't simply show a hunting scene, it shows the celestial hunting scene formed by the constellations Taurus, the bull, and Orion, the hunter. The carving would be the first example of such a star chart in the area—if it isn't simply a celestial coincidence.