Categories: Astronomy

Journal Club – When White Dwarfs Collide


According to Wikipedia, a journal club is a group of individuals who meet regularly to critically evaluate recent articles in scientific literature. Being Universe Today if we occasionally stray into critically evaluating each other’s critical evaluations, that’s OK too. And of course, the first rule of Journal Club is… don’t talk about Journal Club.

So, without further ado – today’s scheduled-for-demolition journal article is about the ongoing problem of figuring out what events precede a Type 1a supernova.

Today’s article:
Dan et al How the merger of two white dwarfs depends on their mass ratio: orbital stability and detonations at contact.

There is growing interest about the nature of the events that precede Type 1a supernovae. We are confident that the progenitor stars of Type 1a supernovae are white dwarfs – but these stars have generally very long lives, making it difficult to identify stars that are potentially on the brink of exploding.

We are also confident that something happens to cause a white dwarf to accumulate extra mass until it reached its Chandrasekhar limit (around 1.4 solar masses, depending on the star’s spin).

For a long time, it had been assumed that a Type 1a supernova probably arose from a binary star system with a white dwarf and another star that had just evolved into a red giant, its outer layers swelling out into the gravitational influence of the white dwarf star, This new material was accreted onto the white dwarf until it hit its Chandrasekhar limit – and then kabloowie.

However, the white-dwarf-red-giant-binary hypothesis is currently falling out of favour. It has always had the problem that any Type 1 supernovae has, by definition, almost no hydrogen absorption lines in its light spectrum – which makes sense for a Type 1a supernovae arising from a hydrogen-expended white dwarf – but then what happened to the new material supposedly donated by a red giant partner (which should have been mostly hydrogen)?

Also, the recently discovered Type 1a SN2011fe was observed just as its explosion was commencing, allowing constraints to be placed on the nature of its progenitor system. Apparently there is no way the system could have included something as big as a red giant and so the next most likely cause is the merging (or collision) of two white dwarfs.

Other modelling research has also concluded that the two white dwarf merger scenario maybe statistically more likely to take place than the red giant accretion scenario – since the latter requires a lot of Goldilocks parameters (where everything has to be just right for a Type 1a to eventuate).

This latest paper expands the possible scenarios under which a two white dwarf merger could produce a Type 1a supernovae – and finds a surprising number of variations with respect to mass, chemistry and the orbital proximities of each star. Of course, it is just modelling but it does challenge the current assertion at the relevant Wikipedia entry that white dwarf mergers are a second possible, but much less likely, mechanism for Type 1a supernovae formation.

So – comments? Anyone want to defend the old red-giant-white-dwarf scenario? Does computer modelling count as a form of evidence? Want to suggest an article for the next edition of Journal Club?

Steve Nerlich

Steve Nerlich is a very amateur Australian astronomer, publisher of the Cheap Astronomy website and the weekly Cheap Astronomy Podcasts and one of the team of volunteer explainers at Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex - part of NASA's Deep Space Network.

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