Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


X-ray vision can reveal the moment of birth of violent supernovae

University of Leicester team surprised by findings

A team of astronomers led by the University of Leicester has uncovered new evidence that suggests that X-ray detectors in space could be the first to witness new supernovae that signal the death of massive stars.

Astronomers have measured an excess of X-ray radiation in the first few minutes of collapsing massive stars, which may be the signature of the supernova shock wave first escaping from the star.

The findings have come as a surprise to Dr Rhaana Starling, of the University of Leicester Department of Physics and Astronomy whose research is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, published by Oxford University Press.

Dr Starling said: "The most massive stars can be tens to a hundred times larger than the Sun. When one of these giants runs out of hydrogen gas it collapses catastrophically and explodes as a supernova, blowing off its outer layers which enrich the Universe. But this is no ordinary supernova; in the explosion narrowly confined streams of material are forced out of the poles of the star at almost the speed of light. These so-called relativistic jets give rise to brief flashes of energetic gamma-radiation called gamma-ray bursts, which are picked up by monitoring instruments in Space, that in turn alert astronomers."

Gamma-ray bursts are known to arise in stellar deaths because coincident supernovae are seen with ground-based optical telescopes about ten to twenty days after the high energy flash. The true moment of birth of a supernova, when the star's surface reacts to the core collapse, often termed the supernova shock breakout, is missed. Only the most energetic supernovae go hand-in-hand with gamma-ray bursts, but for this sub-class it may be possible to identify X-ray emission signatures of the supernova in its infancy. If the supernova could be detected earlier, by using the X-ray early warning system, astronomers could monitor the event as it happens and pinpoint the drivers behind one of the most violent events in our Universe.

The X-ray detectors being used for this research, built partly in the UK at the University of Leicester, are on the X-Ray Telescope on-board the Swift satellite. Swift is named after the bird because, like its namesake, it is able to swiftly turn around to catch a gamma-ray burst in action. Data from Swift of a number of gamma-ray bursts with visible supernovae have shown an excess in X-rays received compared with expectations. This excess is thermal emission, also known as blackbody radiation.

Dr Starling added: "We were surprised to find thermal X-rays coming from a gamma-ray burst, and even more surprising is that all confirmed cases so far are those with a secure supernova identification from optical data. This phenomenon is only seen during the first thousand seconds of an event, and it is challenging to distinguish it from X-ray emission solely from the gamma-ray burst jet. That is why astronomers have not routinely observed this before, and only a small subset of the 700+ bursts we detect with Swift show it."

"It all hangs on the positive identification of the extra X-ray radiation as directly emerging from the supernova shock front, rather than from the relativistic jets or central black hole. If this radiation turns out to be from the central black-hole-powered engine of the gamma-ray burst instead, it will still be a very illuminating result for gamma-ray burst physics, but the strong association with supernovae is tantalising".

The team, comprising scientists from the UK, Ireland, USA and Denmark, plan to extend their searches, and make more quantitative comparisons with theoretical models both for stellar collapse and the dynamics of fast jet-flows.

Astronomers will continue to view supernovae at their visible-light peak, when they are already tens of days old, but for the most energetic among them it may become possible to routinely witness the very moment they are born, through X-ray eyes.


Notes to editors- For more information contact Dr Rhaana Starling on, 0116 2231891

Prof Julian Osborne: 0116 252 3598 or

Dr. Starling's work is funded by a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship.

The two published works appear in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 427, pages 2950-2974, led by Dr. R. Starling (University of Leicester) and Mr. M. Sparre (Dark Cosmology Centre, Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen, Denmark).

THE UK SWIFT SCIENCE DATA CENTRE, at the University of Leicester, provides an archive of all Swift data, with open access for the wider UK astronomical community Funding for UK Swift activities is provided via the UK Space Agency.


The Swift observatory was launched in November 2004 and was fully operational by January 2005. Swift carries three main instruments: the Burst Alert Telescope, the X-ray Telescope, and the Ultraviolet/ Optical Telescope. Its science and science and flight operations are controlled by Penn State from the Mission Operations Center in State College, Pennsylvania. Swift's gamma-ray detector, the Burst Alert Telescope, provides the rapid initial location and was built primarily by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and constructed at GSFC. Swift's X-Ray Telescope and UV/Optical Telescope were developed and built by international teams led by Penn State and drew heavily on each institution's experience with previous space missions. The X-ray Telescope resulted from Penn State's collaboration with the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and the Brera Astronomical Observatory in Italy. The Ultraviolet/ Optical Telescope resulted from Penn State's collaboration with the Mullard Space Science Laboratory of the University College London. These three telescopes give Swift the ability to do almost immediate follow-up observations of most gamma-ray bursts because Swift can rotate so quickly to point toward the source of the gamma-ray signal. The spacecraft was built by General Dynamics. In the UK Swift is funded by the UK Space Agency.

The Royal Society is the UK's national academy of science. Founded in 1660, the Society has three roles, as a provider of independent scientific advice, as a learned Society, and as a funding agency. Our expertise is embodied in the Fellowship, which is made up of the finest scientists from the UK and beyond. For further information on the Royal Society please visit Follow the Royal Society on Twitter at or on Facebook at .

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS,, founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.

Follow the RAS on Twitter via @royalastrosoc

Dr. Rhaana Starling | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht Hope to discover sure signs of life on Mars? New research says look for the element vanadium
22.09.2017 | University of Kansas

nachricht Calculating quietness
22.09.2017 | Forschungszentrum MATHEON ECMath

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: The pyrenoid is a carbon-fixing liquid droplet

Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.

A warming planet

Im Focus: Highly precise wiring in the Cerebral Cortex

Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.

The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...

Im Focus: Tiny lasers from a gallery of whispers

New technique promises tunable laser devices

Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...

Im Focus: Ultrafast snapshots of relaxing electrons in solids

Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!

When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...

Im Focus: Quantum Sensors Decipher Magnetic Ordering in a New Semiconducting Material

For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.

Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

“Lasers in Composites Symposium” in Aachen – from Science to Application

19.09.2017 | Event News

I-ESA 2018 – Call for Papers

12.09.2017 | Event News

EMBO at Basel Life, a new conference on current and emerging life science research

06.09.2017 | Event News

Latest News

Rainbow colors reveal cell history: Uncovering β-cell heterogeneity

22.09.2017 | Life Sciences

Penn first in world to treat patient with new radiation technology

22.09.2017 | Medical Engineering

Calculating quietness

22.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>