New research from a team led by Harvard University and including Carnegie's Josh Simon, Chris Burns, Nidia Morrell, and Mark Phillips examined 23 Type Ia supernovae and helped identify the formation process for at least some of them. Their work will be published in The Astrophysical Journal and is available online.
Type Ia supernovae are violent stellar explosions. Observations of their brightness are used to determine distances in the universe and have shown scientists that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded December 10, 2011, to three astronomers for their "discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae."
Type Ia supernovae are believed to be thermonuclear explosions of a white dwarf star that's part of a binary system--two stars that are physically close together and orbit around a common center of mass. But there are two different possibilities for how Type Ia supernovae are created from this type of binary system.
In the so-called double-degenerate model, the orbit between two white dwarf stars gradually shrinks until the lighter star gets so close to its companion that it is ripped apart by tidal forces. Some of the lighter star's matter is then absorbed into the primary white dwarf, causing an explosion. In the competing single-degenerate model, the white dwarf slowly accretes mass from an ordinary, non-white dwarf star, until it reaches an ignition point.
"Previous studies have produced conflicting results. The conflict disappears if both types of explosion are happening," explained lead author Ryan Foley of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The research team studied 23 Type Ia supernovae to look for signatures of gas around the supernovae, which should be present only in single-degenerate systems. They found that the more powerful explosions tended to come from "gassy" systems, or systems with outflows of gas. However, only a fraction of supernovae show evidence for outflows--the remainder likely come from double-degenerate systems.
The HET is a joint project of the University of Texas at Austin, the Pennsylvania State University, Stanford University, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Munchen, and Georg-August-Universitat Gottingen. The HET is named in honor of its principal benefactors, William P. Hobby and Robert E. Eberly.
The Carnegie Institution for Science (carnegiescience.edu) is a private, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., with six research departments throughout the U.S. Since its founding in 1902, the Carnegie Institution has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research. Carnegie scientists are leaders in plant biology, developmental biology, astronomy, materials science, global ecology, and Earth and planetary science.
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