The problem with supernovae is that you never know where they’re going to happen. Your only clue is the bright flash in the sky, and then it’s too late. But a team of European researchers think they were lucky enough to have spotted the precursor to supernova.
In an article in the February 14th issue of the journal Nature, a team of European researchers describe how they were trying to find evidence of a binary system after one of the objects detonated as a supernova. In looking back through archived images captured by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, they were lucky enough to find one image that actually contained the system.
The supernova, known as SN 2007on exploded as a Type Ia. This is the situation where a white dwarf is in orbit around another star. It’s possible that the white dwarf feeds off material ejected from the other star until it hits a critical amount of mass – approximately 1.4 times the mass of our Sun. Or maybe it’s actually a collision between a white dwarf and another star, or between two white dwarfs.
Whatever the condition, the result is always the same. The white dwarf detonates suddenly with a very specific amount of energy and characteristic light curve. Astronomers use these explosions to measure distance in the Universe, since they’re always exploding with the same amount of energy.
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To really figure out what’s going on, astronomers need more examples of these precursors. They need to be able to study a potential Type Ia supernova before it actually explodes.
So, the researchers finally have a target they can study. In the case of SN 2007on, the data gathered by the Chandra X-Ray Telescope strengthens the “mass stealing” theory. X-rays streaming from the system show the kind of fusion you would expect from a white dwarf consuming material from a neighbour.
This isn’t a slam dunk, though. A higher-quality optical image shows the binary system to be in a slightly different position from where the supernova detonated. So maybe this system isn’t the precursor after all.
But followup observations from Chandra show that the X-ray source is gone. Whatever was at that location isn’t there any more. Perhaps it did indeed vaporize in a supernova explosion.
Original Source: Chandra News Release