Tag Archives: novae

Fermi proves that novae produce gamma rays

The Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope has discovered that novae, small scale stellar explosions similar to some supernovae but far less powerful, also produce gamma rays when they explode.

A nova is a sudden, short-lived brightening of an otherwise inconspicuous star caused by a thermonuclear explosion on the surface of a white dwarf, a compact star not much larger than Earth. Each nova explosion releases up to 100,000 times the annual energy output of our sun. Prior to Fermi, no one suspected these outbursts were capable of producing high-energy gamma rays, emission with energy levels millions of times greater than visible light and usually associated with far more powerful cosmic blasts.

What is significant about this is that it demonstrates a solid link between novae and supernovae, since only recently have scientists shown that some supernovae also produce gamma ray bursts. It suggests that the two explosions are produced by somewhat similar processes, but at very different scales. This fact will have important ramifications in the study of stellar evolution and the death of stars. For example, some nova stars often go nova repeatedly. Other data suggest that some more powerful eruptions can be recurrent as well. Extending this recurrent pattern to supernova suggests many new theoretical possibilities.

In a paper published today in Science, astronomers show that Type 1a supernovae, the kind used to measure the expansion rate of the universe, can be caused in more than one way, something not previously expected.

The uncertainty of science: In a paper published today in Science, astronomers show that Type 1a supernovae, the kind used to measure the expansion rate of the universe, can be caused in more than one way, something not previously expected.

Andy Howell, second author on the study, said: “It is a total surprise to find that thermonuclear supernovae, which all seem so similar, come from different kinds of stars. It is like discovering that some humans evolved from ape-like ancestors, and others came from giraffes. How could they look so similar if they had such different origins?” Howell is the leader of the supernova group at LCOGT, and is an adjunct faculty member in physics at UCSB.

Recently, some studies have found that Type Ia supernovae are not perfect standard candles –– their brightness depends on the type of galaxy in which they were discovered. The reason is a mystery, but the finding that some Type Ia supernovae come from different progenitors would seem to suggest that the supernova’s ultimate brightness may be affected by whether or not it comes from a nova or a white dwarf merger.

“We don’t think this calls the presence of dark energy into question,” said Dilday. “But it does show that if we want to make progress understanding it, we need to understand supernovae better.”