Massive stars end their lives dramatically. Once the nuclear fuel deep within their cores is spent, there’s no longer any outward pressure to push against gravity, and the star collapses. But while the inner layers fall in to form a black hole or a neutron star, the outer layers fall faster, hitting the inner layers, and rebounding in a huge supernova explosion.
That’s the textbook definition. But some of these supernovae defy explanation. In 2011 one such explosion, dubbed SN 2011dh, pierced the Whirlpool galaxy, roughly 24 million-light years away. At the time astronomers were baffled. But now, thanks to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, they’ve discovered a companion star to this rare supernova and fit the final puzzle pieces together.
SN 2011dh is a Type IIb supernova, unusual in that it contains very little hydrogen and unexplainable via a textbook definition. Even so, astronomers can shed light on the progenitor star simply by digging through archived images from HST. Thanks to HST’s wealth of data and the fact that it observes the Whirlpool galaxy often, two independent research teams both detected a source — a yellow supergiant star — at the right location.
But astronomers don’t think yellow supergiant stars are capable of becoming supernovae … at least not in isolation.
At this point, controversy arose within the astronomical community. Several experts proposed that the observation was a false cosmic alignment and that the actual progenitor was an unseen massive star. Other experts proposed that the progenitor could have been the yellow supergiant, but that it must have belonged in a binary star system.
When a massive star in a binary system overflows its Roche lobe — the region outside that star where gravity dominates — it can pour material onto its smaller companion, therefore losing its hydrogen envelope and shrinking in mass.
At the time the mass-donor explodes, the companion star should be a massive blue star, having gained material during the mass transfer. Its high temperature should also cause it to emit mostly in the ultraviolet range, therefore rendering it invisible in any visible images.
So Gastón Folatelli from the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (IPMU) and colleagues decided to take a second look at the mysterious supernova in ultraviolet light. And their observations matched their expectations. The original supernova had faded, and a different point source had taken its place.
“One of the most exciting moments in my career as an astronomer was when I displayed the newly arrived HST images and saw the object right there, where we had anticipated it to be all along,” said Folatelli in a news release.
The research illustrates the intricate interplay between theory and observation. Astronomers often rely on theories long before they gain the technology necessary to provide the correct observations or spend years trying to explain odd observations with complex theoretical modeling. More often, however, the two coexist as theory and observation banter back and forth.
The findings have been published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters and are available online.