Tag Archives: supernovae

Astronomers get best and earliest view of supernovae ever

Using ground-based telescopes as well as the space telescope Kepler astronomers have obtained their best and earliest view of a Type Ia supernova.

The supernova, named SN 2018oh, was brighter than expected over the first few days. The increased brightness is an indication that it slammed into a nearby companion star. This adds to the growing body of evidence that some, but not all, of these thermonuclear supernovae have a large companion star that triggers the explosion.

Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO), based in Goleta, California, is a global network of 21 robotic telescopes that obtained some of the best data characterizing the supernova in support of the NASA mission. Wenxiong Li, the lead author of one of three papers published today on the finding, was based at LCO when much of the research was underway. Five other LCO astronomers, who are affiliated with the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), also contributed to two of the papers.

Understanding the origins of Type Ia supernovae is critical because they are used as standard candles to map out distances in cosmology. They were used to discover Dark Energy, the mysterious force causing the universe to accelerate in its expansion. Astronomers have long known that a supernova is the explosion of a dense white dwarf star (A white dwarf has the mass of the sun, but only the radius of the Earth; one teaspoon of a white dwarf would weigh roughly 23000 pounds) What triggers the explosion is less well understood. One theory holds that the explosions are the merger of two white dwarf stars. Another is that the second star is not a white dwarf at all, but a normal-sized or even giant star that loses only some of its matter to the white dwarf to initiate the explosion. In this theory, the explosion then smashes into the surviving second star, causing the supernova to be exceedingly bright in its early hours.

Finding that Type Ia supernovae can be brighter than previously believed throws a wrench into the results that discovered dark energy, since those results made assumptions about the brightness and thus the distance of those supernovae. If the brightness of these supernovae are not as reliable as expected, they are also less of a standard candle for estimating distance.

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Astronomers identify first progenitor star for Type 1C supernovae

Astronomers have for the first time identified a progenitor star for a Type 1C supernovae.

[The search for supernovae progenitor stars has found] a few pre-supernova stars. But the doomed stars for one class of supernova have eluded discovery: the hefty stars that explode as Type Ic supernovas. These stars, weighing more than 30 times our Sun’s mass, lose their hydrogen and helium layers before their cataclysmic death. Researchers thought they should be easy to find because they are big and bright. However, they have come up empty. Finally, in 2017, astronomers got lucky. A nearby star ended its life as a Type Ic supernova. Two teams of researchers pored through the archive of Hubble images to uncover the putative precursor star in pre-explosion photos taken in 2007. The supernova, catalogued as SN 2017ein, appeared near the center of the nearby spiral galaxy NGC 3938, located roughly 65 million light-years away.

An analysis of the candidate star’s colors shows that it is blue and extremely hot. Based on that assessment, both teams suggest two possibilities for the source’s identity. The progenitor could be a single star between 45 and 55 times more massive than our Sun. Another idea is that it could have been a binary-star system in which one of the stars weighs between 60 and 80 times our Sun’s mass and the other roughly 48 solar masses. In this latter scenario, the stars are orbiting closely and interact with each other. The more massive star is stripped of its hydrogen and helium layers by the close companion, and eventually explodes as a supernova.

As can be seen by the quote above, identifying the star that exploded still leaves much unknown, including whether the star is a single or a binary. Still, they finally have some idea what kind of star erupts in a Type IIC supernovae, which will help constrain the theories for explaining the cause of these explosions.

Note also that this identification will not be confirmed until the supernova itself completely fades in about two years. They might find when that happens that the candidate progenitor is still there, meaning it was not the progenitor of the supernova at all.

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Timelapse movie of Supernova 1987A’s evolution from 1992 to 2017

Cool movie time! An astronomy graduate student in Toronto has created a movie showing the steady evolution of the shock wave from Supernova 1987A, the first supernova visible to the naked eye since the discovery of the telescope, during the past twenty-five years.

Yvette Cendes, a graduate student with the University of Toronto and the Leiden Observatory, has created a time-lapse showing the aftermath of the supernova over a 25-year period, from 1992 to 2017. The images show the shockwave expanding outward and slamming into debris that ringed the original star before its demise.

In an accompanying paper, published in the Astrophysical Journal on October 31st, Cendes and her colleagues add to the evidence that the expanding remnant is shaped—not like a ring like those of Saturn’s—but like a donut, a form known as a torus. They also confirm that the shockwave has now picked up some one thousand kilometres per second in speed. The acceleration has occurred because the expanding torus has punched through the ring of debris.

The animation, which I have embedded below the fold, uses images produced by an array radio telescopes in Australia.
» Read more

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How to blow up a star

Link here. The story details the new supercomputer simulation work attempting to model the internal processes inside a dying star that cause it to explode as a supernova.

For more than half a century, physicists have suspected that the heat produced by elusive particles called neutrinos, created in the core of a star, could generate a blast that radiates more energy in a single second than the Sun will in its lifetime. But they have had trouble proving that hypothesis. The detonation process is so complex — incorporating general relativity, fluid dynamics, nuclear and other physics — that computers have struggled to mimic the mechanism in silico. And that poses a problem. “If you can’t reproduce it,” Janka says, “that means you don’t understand it.”

Now, improvements in raw computing power, along with efforts to capture the stellar physics in acute detail, have enabled substantial progress. Janka’s simulation marked the first time that physicists had been able to get a realistic 3D model of the most common type of supernova to explode. Just months later, a competing group based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee repeated the feat with a heavier, more complex star. The field is now buzzing, with more than half a dozen teams currently working on exploding stars in 3D.

They have apparently solved one problem, figuring out how the neutrino blast wave gets enough energy to blast free from the star’s core. A close read of the article indicates that, while progress has been made, they still have many gaps of their understanding.

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“One of the greatest discoveries of the century is based on these things and we don’t even know what they are, really.”

The uncertainty of science: New research suggests that astronomers have little understanding of the supernovae that they use to estimate the distance to most galaxies, estimates they then used to discover dark energy as well as measure the universe’s expansion rate.

The exploding stars known as type Ia supernovae are so consistently bright that astronomers refer to them as standard candles — beacons that are used to measure vast cosmological distances. But these cosmic mileposts may not be so uniform. A new study finds evidence that the supernovae can arise by two different processes, adding to lingering suspicions that standard candles aren’t so standard after all.

The findings, which have been posted on the arXiv preprint server and accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal, could help astronomers to calibrate measurements of the Universe’s expansion. Tracking type Ia supernovae showed that the Universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate, and helped to prove the existence of dark energy — advances that secured the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The fact that scientists don’t fully understand these cosmological tools is embarrassing, says the latest study’s lead author, Griffin Hosseinzadeh, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “One of the greatest discoveries of the century is based on these things and we don’t even know what they are, really.”

The key to understanding this situation is to maintain a healthy skepticism about any cosmological theory or discovery, no matter how enthusiastically touted by the press and astronomers. The good astronomers do not push these theories with great enthusiasm as they know the feet of clay on which they stand. The bad ones try to use the ignorant mainstream press to garner attention, and thus funding.

For the past two decades the good astronomers have been diligently checking and rechecking the data and the supernovae used to discover dark energy. Up to now this checking seems to still suggest the universe’s expansion is accelerating on large scales. At the same time, our knowledge of supernovae remains sketchy, and thus no one should assume we understand the universe’s expansion rate with any confidence.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.”

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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:
» Read more

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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?

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