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It’s a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack when looking for a star in a galaxy. Although hard to do, astronomers using images from the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) are doing just that, trying to find stars before they explode as supernovae. In 2006, supernova SN 2006bc was spotted in spiral galaxy NGC 2397, so astronomers got to work, sifting through previous images taken by the HST. They found that star, in the rising stage of brightness as it exploded. Usually we don’t get to see this stage of a supernova, as we can’t predict which star is going to blow. But retracing years of HST observational data, scientists are able to piece together the cosmic forensic evidence and see the star before it died…
SN 2006bc was seen in the spiral galaxy NGC 2397, located nearly 60 million light years from the Milky Way, back in 2006. There was no warning or any indication that that star was going to blow in that galaxy (after all, there’s a lot out there), but Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) captured the galaxy after it happened. So astronomers watched the afterglow of the event. While a lot of good science can be done by analysing the remnants of a supernova, wouldn’t it be great to see a star before it explodes? Perhaps then we can analyse the emissions from an unstable star before it dies…
Predicting cosmic events is no new thing, and much effort is being put into various forecasting techniques. A few examples include:
- Solar radiation: The main focus for solar physicists is to predict “space weather” to help protect us against the dangerous onslaught of high energy particles (particularly solar flares).
- Detecting supernova neutrinos: An “early warning” system is already in place to detect the neutrinos that are blasted from a star’s core at the moment of a star’s collapse (leading to a supernova). The SuperNova Early Warning System (SNEWS) has been set up to detect these neutrinos.
- Gamma ray bursts (GRBs): The Polish “Pi of the Sky” GRB detector is an array of cameras looking out for optical flashes (or transients) in the night sky above the Chilean mountains. Combined with NASA’s Swift gamma ray observatory in orbit, the burst is detected, immediately signalling other observatories to watch the event.
The above examples usually detect the sudden event of a solar flare, GRB or surge of neutrinos right at the point of initiation. Fortunately for solar physicists, we have a vast amount of high-spatial and high-temporal resolution data about our closest star. Should a flare be launched, we can “rewind the tape” and see the location of flare initiation and work out the conditions before the flare was launched. From this, we are able to be better informed and possibly predict where the next flare will be launched from. Supernova astronomers aren’t so lucky. The cosmos is a big place after all, only a tiny proportion of the night sky has been observed in any great detail, and the chances that the same region has been imaged more than once at high resolution are few and far between.
Although the chances are slim, researchers from Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, led by Professor Stephen J. Smartt used Hubble Space Telescope (HST) images to “rewind the tape” before supernova SN 2006bc occurred. By confining their search for “pre-supernova” stars in local galaxies, there was a better chance of studying galaxies that have been imaged at high resolution and imaged more than once in the past. SN 2006bc turned out to be the perfect candidate.
The group has done this before. Of the six precursor stars discovered to date, Smartt’s team found five of them. From their analysis, it is hoped that the characteristics of a star before it dies can be worked out as the conditions for a supernova to occur is poorly understood.
After ten years of surveying, the group presented their discoveries of supernova precursor stars at this year’s National Astronomy Meeting 2008 in Belfast, last week. It appears that stars with masses as low as seven times the size of our Sun can explode as supernovae. They go on to hypothesise that the massive stars may not explode as supernovae and may just die through collapse and form as a black hole. The emission from such an event may be too faint to observe and the most energetic supernovae may be restricted to the smaller stars.
However, six supernova precursor stars are not a large number to make any big conclusions quite yet, but it is a big step in the right direction to better understand the mechanisms at work in a star just about to explode…