Chandra Sees the Brightest Supernova

by Fraser Cain on May 7, 2007

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SN 2006gy. Image credit: ChandraNASA’s Chandra X-Ray observatory might have observed a brand new kind of supernova, or maybe it’s just an unusually bright supernova. Whatever the case, the explosion of SN 2006gy seems to be the brightest supernova ever observed, flaring with 100 times the energy of a typical exploded star.

The team that discovered SN 2006gy think that the original star might have contained 150 times the mass of our Sun; only the first generation of stars that formed after the Big Bang were thought to be this massive. It was the Chandra X-Ray observations that helped distinguish the supernova as originating from a massive star, and not the Type 1A associated with an exploding white dwarf star.

A supernova occurs when a massive star consumes its fuel, loses outward pressure, and collapses inward under its own gravity. But in the case of SN 2006gy, there might be an entirely new process going on here. The precursor star could have been so large that its core produces a large amount of gamma rays. The energy from this radiation is converted into particle and anti-particle pairs, and causes a drop in energy. Without this energy, the star collapses from its own gravity early and detonates as a supernova.

Even though SN 2006gy is the intrinsically brightest supernova ever seen, it exploded in galaxy NGC 1260, which is located about 240 million light-years away – so you need a powerful telescope to see it. The closest star that’s in the same category is Eta Carinae, a massive star located only 7500 light-years away. No telescope will be necessary when it explodes.

Original Source: Chandra News Release

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Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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