Tag Archives: supernovae

The supernovae that fertilized the Earth

A new study has pinned down the dates of two recent supernovae that showered the Earth with the heavier elements that make life here possible.

Many mainstream articles about this story have been implying that this research has discovered the existence of supernovae near the primordial Earth. This is false. Scientists have had evidence of these early supernovae for decades, from asteroids, in isotopes on Earth, and in the existence of the Local Bubble in which the Sun is presently traveling. What this study has done is narrow the location and the time of at least two of these supernovae, a significant discovery, though not the one much of the ignorant press is pushing.

Most powerful supernovae ever

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers have discovered the most powerful supernovae ever detected.

This one, called ASASSN-15lh, is about 3.8 billion light years away, 200 times more powerful than most supernovas, and twice as bright as the previous record holder. It shines 20 times brighter than the combined output of the Milky Way’s 100 billion stars, and in the last six months, it has spewed as much energy as the sun would in 10 lifetimes, says Krzysztof Stanek of the Ohio State University, co-principal investigator of the All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae (ASAS-SN) network that spotted the explosion. “This is really on steroids, and then some,” he says. “If it was in our own galaxy, it would shine brighter than the full moon; there would be no night, and it would be easily seen during the day.”

At the moment astronomers don’t really have an theory to explain how the supernovae could produce that much energy.

Dark energy evidence found to be uncertain

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers have discovered that the type of supernovae they have used as a standard to measure the accelerating expansion of the universe, which also is evidence for the existence of dark energy, are actually made up of two different types.

The authors conclude that some of the reported acceleration of the universe can be explained by color differences between the two groups of supernovae, leaving less acceleration than initially reported. This would, in turn, require less dark energy than currently assumed. “We’re proposing that our data suggest there might be less dark energy than textbook knowledge, but we can’t put a number on it,” Milne said. “Until our paper, the two populations of supernovae were treated as the same population. To get that final answer, you need to do all that work again, separately for the red and for the blue population.”

The authors pointed out that more data have to be collected before scientists can understand the impact on current measures of dark energy.

It has always bothered me that the evidence for dark energy was based entirely on measurements of type 1a supernovae from extremely far away and billions of years ago. Not only was that a different time in the universe’s history when conditions could be different, our actual understanding of those supernovae themselves is very tenuous. We really do not have a full understanding of what causes them, or how they even happen. To then assume that these distant explosions are all so similar that their brightness can be used as a “standard” seems untrustworthy. From my perspective, the conclusions, though interesting, are being pushed based on extremely weak data.

The research at the link illustrates just how weak that data was.

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.

For more information about that newly discovered supernova in the nearby galaxy M82 go here and here.

For more information about that newly discovered supernova in the nearby galaxy M82 go here and here.

The first link notes that the supernova has brightened to 11.5 magnitude and could get even brighter in the next two weeks. Though still too dim for the naked eye, it is easily bright enough right now for most amateur telescopes and binoculars. How much brighter it will get remains a question.

Astronomers have identified a star they expect to go supernova very soon.

Astronomers have identified a star they expect to go supernova very soon.

[SBW2007] 1 (or SBW1) is located 20,000 light-years from Earth and features an enigmatic double-ringed planetary nebula. The rings are gases that have been blasted from the outermost layers of the blue supergiant star in the nebula’s core. The star, which was estimated to be 20 times the mass of the sun before it became unstable, is going through its final death throes before a supernova is initiated. But don’t worry, the supernova would be a safe distance from us, although it will put on an exciting light show.

There is no way to predict when the supernova will occur. On the timescales of stellar evolution, it could happen tomorrow, or in a thousand years. For the full Hubble image go here.

This story is significant in that it shows how much knowledge has been gained in astronomy since Hubble’s launch. In 1987, when Supernova 1987a exploded in the Large Magellanic Cloud, astronomers had not identified even one progenitor of any supernova, and did not have any clear idea what kinds of stars produced these gigantic explosions. Today, they have identified more than a handful, and are even beginning to pinpoint candidates, such as the star above, that could be the next stars to go boom.

A supernova has exploded in the galaxy M74, only 30 million light years away.

A supernova has exploded in the galaxy M74, only 30 million light years away.

This is one of the closest supernovae in recent years. Though it is still brightening and has reached 12th magnitude, it is not expected to brighten to naked eye visibility (about 6th magnitude). Astronomers however have spotted the progenitor star in archival Hubble images, which they have identified as a M-type red supergiant that was also particularly bright in the infrared.

The remarkable remains of a most recent supernova.

The remarkable remains of a most recent supernova.

Astronomers estimate that a star explodes as a supernova in our Galaxy, on average, about twice per century. In 2008, a team of scientists announced they discovered the remains of a supernova that is the most recent, in Earth’s time frame, known to have occurred in the Milky Way. The explosion would have been visible from Earth a little more than a hundred years ago if it had not been heavily obscured by dust and gas. Its likely location is about 28,000 light years from Earth near the center of the Milky Way.

Using Hubble astronomers have confirmed that it was a yellow supergiant star that was the progenitor for the nearest supernovae in decades that occurred in 2011.

Using Hubble astronomers have confirmed that it was a yellow supergiant star that was the progenitor for the nearest supernovae in decades, that occurred in 2011 in the Whirlpool Galaxy.

The uncertainty of science: As I noted in 2011 when the yellow supergiant was first detected in pre-explosion images. no theory at that time had ever proposed this kind of star as a supernova progenitor. The discovery has thus required the theorists to come up with new theories.

Scientists now believe they have found evidence proving that the unknown origin of cosmic rays are supernova explosions.

Scientists now believe they have found evidence proving that the unknown origin of cosmic rays are supernova explosions.

This has been one of astronomy’s longest outstanding mysteries: What produces the interstellar cosmic rays that come from outside our solar system?

A star has gone supernova and astronomers get to see it from the very beginning, and even earlier!

A star has gone supernova and astronomers get to see it from the very beginning, and even earlier!

The star had erupted several times before but had not produced a real supernova explosion. On September 26 it finally did so. Moreover, astronomers have images of the star prior to any eruption, information that until recently was not available for any supernovae.

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.”

Have astronomers found a future supernova?

A press release from the Carnegie Institute today described a recent paper by astronomers that might have identified a star in the Milky Way that might go supernova sometime in the future. The star QU Carinae, is a cataclysmic variable, a binary system in which material dumped from one star onto another periodically causes an outburst of X-rays.

I emailed Stella Kafka, the lead scientist of the research paper, to find out how far away QU Carinae is and how soon it might go supernova. She responded as follows:
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Astronomers now believe that Type 1a supernovae — used to discover dark energy — can be produced in two different ways.

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers now believe that Type 1a supernovae — used to discover dark energy — can be produced in two different ways.

Type Ia supernovae are known to originate from white dwarfs – the dense cores of dead stars. White dwarfs are also called degenerate stars because they’re supported by quantum degeneracy pressure. In the single-degenerate model for a supernova, a white dwarf gathers material from a companion star until it reaches a tipping point where a runaway nuclear reaction begins and the star explodes. In the double-degenerate model, two white dwarfs merge and explode. Single-degenerate systems should have gas from the companion star around the supernova, while the double-degenerate systems will lack that gas.

For astronomers, this possibility raises several conflicting questions. If two different causes produce Type 1a supernovae, could their measurement of dark energy be suspect? And if not, why is it that these two different causes produce supernovae explosions that look so much alike?

A supernova twenty-five years later.

A supernova twenty-five years later.

SN 1987A, it turns out, was like a dust-bomb, with estimates of the total dust it threw into space, based on the infrared brightness of the dust … implying enough dusty material to build the equivalent of 200,000 Earth-mass planets. Mingled within the dust are elements as diverse as oxygen, nitrogen, sulphur, silicon, carbon and iron. This immense amount of dust has been beyond expectations and, if all supernovae spew out this much dust, it helps explain why young galaxies that we can see existing in the early Universe, which have high rates or star birth and death, are so dusty. The dust, however, isn’t a nuisance to be wiped away – this is the material that goes into building new planets, moons and even life. The iron in your blood and the calcium in your bones all came from supernovae like SN 1987A, as mostly did the oxygen we breath and the carbon in our constituent molecules.

New data suggests that the crash of two white dwarf stars caused the nearest supernovae in 25 years

New data has found that the crash of two white dwarf stars not only caused the nearest supernova in 25 years, but appear to be the prime cause for these types of supernovae.

The data also says that there are no white dwarf primary systems in the Milky Way that are candidates to go supernova in this way. Thus, we can all sleep easy tonight!

The most distant supernova discovered so far.

The most distant supernova discovered so far.

SN Primo is the farthest Type Ia supernova whose distance has been confirmed through spectroscopic observations. The supernova was discovered as part of a three-year Hubble program to survey faraway Type Ia supernovae, enabling searches for this special class of stellar explosion at greater distances than previously possible. The remote supernovae will help astronomers determine whether the exploding stars remain dependable distance markers across vast distances of space in an epoch when the cosmos was only one-third its current age of 13.7 billion years.

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