Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Largest, brightest supernova ever seen may be long-sought pair-instability supernova

09.05.2007
Massive stellar explosion may be like demise of universe's first stars

An exploding star first observed last September is the largest and most luminous supernova ever seen, according to University of California, Berkeley, astronomers, and may be the first example of a type of massive exploding star rare today but probably common in the very early universe.

Unlike typical supernovas that reach a peak brightness in days to a few weeks and then dim into obscurity a few months later, SN2006gy took 70 days to reach full brightness and stayed brighter than any previously observed supernova for more than three months. Nearly eight months later, it still is as bright as a typical supernova at its peak, outshining its host galaxy 240 million light years away.

UC Berkeley post-doctoral fellows Nathan Smith and David Pooley estimate the star's mass at between 100 and 200 times that of the sun. Such massive stars are so rare that galaxies like our own Milky Way may contain only a dozen out of a stellar population of 400 billion.

"This was a truly monstrous explosion, a hundred times more energetic than a typical supernova," said Smith, who led a team of astronomers from UC Berkeley and the University of Texas. "That means the star that exploded might have been as massive as a star can get, about 150 times that of our sun. We've never seen that before."

"Of all exploding stars ever observed, this was the king," said Alex Filippenko, UC Berkeley astronomer and leader of the ground-based observations at the University of California's Lick Observatory in California and the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. "We were astonished to see how bright it got, and how long it lasted."

Based on the Lick and Keck observations, plus data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, Smith, Pooley, Filippenko and their colleagues argue that the stellar explosion was not your run-of-the-mill supernova, but a possible pair-instability supernova. They have submitted a paper describing the discovery and their conclusions to The Astrophysical Journal.

Stars with masses at least 10 times greater than our sun end their lives after burning hydrogen to helium, helium to carbon, and on to larger elements until they reach iron, when fusion stops. Toward the end of this process, the heat produced in the core of the star becomes insufficient to support the outer layers, which collapse inward, finishing the fusion process and crunching the core to a neutron star or black hole. The outer layers of the star are blown off in a bright flare-up we observe as a supernova.

For stars much more massive than this, ranging from 140 solar masses to as many as 250, the temperature at the core becomes so great that before the fusion cascade is complete, high-energy gamma rays in the core start annihilating one another, creating matter-antimatter pairs, mostly electron-positron pairs. Since gamma radiation is the energy that prevents collapse of the outer layers of the star, once the radiation starts disappearing, the outer layers fall inward. The net result is a thermonuclear explosion that, theoretically, would be brighter than any typical supernova. In this type of supernova, the star is blown to smithereens, leaving behind no black hole.

"This discovery forces us to go back to the drawing board to understand how the most massive stars die," Smith said. "Instead of just winking away into a black hole, they apparently can suffer these brilliant explosions that can be seen far across the universe. The fact that this thing is so bright, and stayed bright for a long time, makes our chances of detecting them in the early universe much better."

Such pair-instability supernovas should theoretically produce a greater percentage of heavy elements. According to Smith, the radioactive decay of nickel-56 produces most of the light of a supernova, and this pair-instability supernova produced about 20 solar masses of nickel, compared to maybe 0.6 solar masses in a Type Ia supernova. Astronomers think that a large proportion of the universe's first stars were supermassive stars like this that, upon exploding, seeded the early universe with the heavy elements from which planets and later, humans, were made.

"We may have witnessed a modern-day version of how the first generation of the most massive stars ended their lives, when the universe was very young," Filippenko said.

The star that produced SN 2006gy apparently expelled a large amount of mass prior to exploding, reminiscent of the star eta Carinae, a so-called luminous blue variable which, at 100 to 120 solar masses, is the most massive star in our galaxy.

"This is also very exciting because it suggests that eta Carinae, only 7,500 light years away, might possibly explode in a similar manner, becoming a spectacularly bright star in our sky," Filippenko said.

"We don't know for sure if Eta Carinae will explode soon, but we had better keep a close eye on it just in case," added Mario Livio of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., who was not involved in the research. "Eta Carinae's explosion could be the best star-show in the history of modern civilization."

University of Texas graduate student Robert Quimby first observed the supernova on Sept. 18, 2006 in the galaxy NGC 1260, located in the constellation Perseus. Filippenko's team immediately began observing it with its dedicated supernova search and monitor telescope at Lick, the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope.

Filippenko and his graduate student Ryan Foley subsequently obtained spectra of the star using the Lick 3-meter Shane telescope and the DEIMOS spectrograph mounted on the Keck II telescope.

Pooley led the Chandra observation, which allowed the team to rule out the most likely alternative explanation for the supernova, namely that it was an explosion of a white dwarf star into a dense, hydrogen-rich environment.

"If that were the case, this supernova would have been 1,000 times brighter in X-rays than what we detected with Chandra," said Pooley. "This must have been an extremely massive star."

"In terms of the effect on the early universe, there's a huge difference between these two possibilities," said Smith. "One pollutes the galaxy with large quantities of newly synthesized elements, and the other locks them up forever in a black hole."

"One exciting repercussion of this is that, if pair-instability supernovas really are this bright, it gives us hope that the James Webb Space Telescope might actually be able to detect these explosions from the first stars, thereby verifying that they may actually exist," he added.

Robert Sanders | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.berkeley.edu

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Study offers new theoretical approach to describing non-equilibrium phase transitions
27.04.2017 | DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

nachricht SwRI-led team discovers lull in Mars' giant impact history
26.04.2017 | Southwest Research Institute

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Making lightweight construction suitable for series production

More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.

Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...

Im Focus: Wonder material? Novel nanotube structure strengthens thin films for flexible electronics

Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.

"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...

Im Focus: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Fighting drug resistant tuberculosis – InfectoGnostics meets MYCO-NET² partners in Peru

28.04.2017 | Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Wireless power can drive tiny electronic devices in the GI tract

28.04.2017 | Medical Engineering

Ice cave in Transylvania yields window into region's past

28.04.2017 | Earth Sciences

Nose2Brain – Better Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis

28.04.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>