Type Ia supernovae are a mystery because no one can predict when or where one might occur. But astronomers are hedging their bets on V445 Puppis. A so-called “vampire white dwarf” that underwent a nova outburst after gulping down part of its companion’s matter in 2000, now, it appears this double star system is a prime candidate for exploding. “Whether V445 Puppis will eventually explode as a supernova, or if the current nova outburst has pre-empted that pathway by ejecting too much matter back into space is still unclear,” said Patrick Woudt, from the University of Cape Town and lead author of the paper reporting the results. “But we have here a pretty good suspect for a future Type Ia supernova!”
This is the first, and so far only nova showing no evidence at all for hydrogen, and provides the first evidence for an outburst on the surface of a white dwarf dominated by helium. “This is critical, as we know that Type Ia supernovae lack hydrogen,” said Danny Steeghs, from the University of Warwick, UK, “and the companion star in V445 Pup fits this nicely by also lacking hydrogen, instead dumping mainly helium gas onto the white dwarf.”
Click here to watch a movie of the expanding shell of V445 Puppis.
The astronomers have determined the system is about 25,000 light-years from the Sun, and it has an intrinsic brightness of over 10,000 times our Sun. This implies that the vampire white dwarf in this system has a high mass that is near its fatal limit and is still simultaneously being fed by its companion at a high rate.
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“One of the major problems in modern astrophysics is the fact that we still do not know exactly what kinds of stellar system explode as a Type Ia supernova,” said Woudt, “As these supernovae play a crucial role in showing that the Universe’s expansion is currently accelerating, pushed by a mysterious dark energy, it is rather embarrassing.”
Woudt and his team used the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) to obtain very sharp images of V445 Puppis over a time span of two years. The images show a bipolar shell, initially with a very narrow waist, with lobes on each side. Two knots are also seen at both the extreme ends of the shell, which appear to move at about 30 million kilometers per hour. The shell — unlike any previously observed for a nova — is itself moving at about 24 million kilometers per hour. A thick disc of dust, which must have been produced during the last outburst, obscures the two central stars.
As Steeghs said, one defining characteristic of Type Ia supernovae is the lack of hydrogen in their spectrum. Yet hydrogen is the most common chemical element in the Universe. Such supernovae most likely arise in systems composed of two stars, one of them being the end product of the life of sun-like stars, or white dwarfs. When such white dwarfs, acting as stellar vampires that suck matter from their companion, become heavier than a given limit, they become unstable and explode.
The build-up is not a simple process. As the white dwarf cannibalizes its prey, matter accumulates on its surface. If this layer becomes too dense, it becomes unstable and erupts as a nova. These controlled, mini-explosions eject part of the accumulated matter back into space. The crucial question is thus to know whether the white dwarf can manage to gain weight despite the outburst, that is, if some of the matter taken from the companion stays on the white dwarf, so that it will eventually become heavy enough to explode as a supernova.