When stars reach the end of their life cycle, many will blow off their outer layers in an explosive process known as a supernova. While astronomers have learned much about this phenomena, thanks to sophisticated instruments that are able to study them in multiple wavelengths, there is still a great deal that we don’t know about supernovae and their remnants.
For example, there are still unresolved questions about the mechanisms that power the resulting shock waves from a supernova. However, an international team of researchers recently used data obtained by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory of a nearby supernova (SN1987A) and new simulations to measure the temperature of the atoms in the resulting shock wave.
On June 17th 2018, the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) survey’s twin telescopes spotted something extraordinarily bright in the sky. The source was 200 million light years away in the constellation Hercules. The object was given the name AT2018cow or “The Cow.” The Cow flared up quickly, and then just as quickly it was gone.
Apparently not all supernovas work. And when they fail, they leave behind a half-chewed remnant, still burning from leftover heat but otherwise lifeless: a zombie star. Astronomers aren’t sure how many of these should-be-dead creatures lurk in the interstellar depths, but with recent simulations scientists are making a list of their telltale signatures so that future surveys can potentially track them down.
For many years, scientists have been studying how supernovae could affect life on Earth. Supernovae are extremely powerful events, and depending on how close they are to Earth, they could have consequences ranging from the cataclysmic to the inconsequential. But now, the scientists behind a new paper say they have specific evidence linking one or more supernova to an extinction event 2.6 million years ago.
About 2.6 million years ago, one or more supernovae exploded about 50 parsecs, or about 160 light years, away from Earth. At that same time, there was also an extinction event on Earth, called the Pliocene marine megafauna extinction. Up to a third of the large marine species on Earth were wiped out at the time, most of them living in shallow coastal waters.
“This time, it’s different. We have evidence of nearby events at a specific time.” – Dr. Adrian Melott, University of Kansas.
As astronomical phenomena go, supernovae are among the most fascinating and spectacular. This process occurs when certain types of stars reach the end of their lifespan, where they explode and throw off their outer layers. Thanks to generations of study, astronomers have been able to classify most observed supernovae into one of two categories (Type I and Type II) and determine which kinds of stars are the progenitors for each.
However, to date, astronomers have been unable to determine which type of star eventually leads to a Type Ic supernova – a special of class where a star undergoes core collapse after being stripped of its hydrogen and helium. But thanks to the efforts of two teams of astronomers that pored over archival data from the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists have now found the long sought-after star that causes this type of supernova.
When stars reach the end of their main sequence, they undergo a gravitational collapse, ejecting their outermost layers in a supernova explosion. What remains afterward is a dense, spinning core primarily made up of neutrons (aka. a neutron star), of which only 3000 are known to exist in the Milky Way Galaxy. An even rarer subset of neutron stars are magnetars, only two dozen of which are known in our galaxy.
These stars are especially mysterious, having extremely powerful magnetic fields that are almost powerful enough to rip them apart. And thanks to a new study by a team of international astronomers, it seems the mystery of these stars has only deepened further. Using data from a series of radio and x-ray observatories, the team observed a magnetar last year that had been dormant for about three years, and is now behaving somewhat differently.
Magnetars are so-named because their magnetic fields are up to 1000 times stronger than those of ordinary pulsating neutron stars (aka. pulsars). The energy associated with these these fields is so powerful that it almost breaks the star apart, causing them to be unstable and display great variability in terms of their physical properties and electromagnetic emissions.
Whereas all magnetars are known to emit X-rays, only four have been known to emit radio waves. One of these is PSR J1622-4950 – a magnetar located about 30,000 light years from Earth. As of early 2015, this magnetar had been in a dormant state. But as the team indicated in their study, astronomers using the CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope in Australia noted that it was becoming active again on April 26th, 2017.
At the time, the magnetar was emitting bright radio pulses every four seconds. A few days later, Parkes was shut down as part of a month-long planned maintenance routine. At about the same time, South Africa’s MeerKAT radio telescope began monitoring the star, despite the fact that it was still under construction and only 16 of its 64 radio dishes were available. Dr Fernando Camilo describes the discovery in a recent SKA South Africa press release:
“[T]he MeerKAT observations proved critical to make sense of the few X-ray photons we captured with NASA’s orbiting telescopes – for the first time X-ray pulses have been detected from this star, every 4 seconds. Put together, the observations reported today help us to develop a better picture of the behaviour of matter in unbelievably extreme physical conditions, completely unlike any that can be experienced on Earth”.
For one, they determined that PSR J1622-4950’s radio flux density, while variable, was approximately 100 times greater than it was during its dormant state. In addition, the x-ray flux was at least 800 times larger one month after reactivation, but began decaying exponentially over the course of a 92 to 130 day period. However, the radio observations noted something in the magnetar’s behavior that was quite unexpected.
While the overall geometry that was inferred from PSR J1622-4950’s radio emissions was consistent with what had been determined several years prior, their observations indicated that the radio emissions were now coming from a different location in the magnetosphere. This above all indicates how radio emissions from magnetars could differ from ordinary pulsars.
This discovery has also validated the MeerKAT Observatory as a world-class research instrument. This observatory is part of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the multi-radio telescope project that is building the world’s largest radio telescope in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. For its part, MeerKAT uses 64 radio antennas to gather radio images of the Universe to help astronomers understand how galaxies have evolved over time.
Given the sheer volume of data collected by these telescopes, MeerKAT relies on both cutting edge-technology and a highly-qualified team of operators. As Abbott indicated, “we have a team of the brightest engineers and scientists in South Africa and the world working on the project, because the problems that we need to solve are extremely challenging, and attract the best”.
Prof Phil Diamond, the Director-General of the SKA Organization leading the development of the Square Kilometer Array, was also impressed by the contribution of the MeerKAT team. As he stated in an SKA press release:
“Well done to my colleagues in South Africa for this outstanding achievement. Building such telescopes is extremely difficult, and this publication shows that MeerKAT is becoming ready for business. As one of the SKA precursor telescopes, this bodes well for the SKA. MeerKAT will eventually be integrated into Phase 1 of SKA-mid telescope bringing the total dishes at our disposal to 197, creating the most powerful radio telescope on the planet”.
When the SKA goes online, it will be one of the most powerful ground-based telescopes in the world and roughly 50 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument. Along with other next-generation ground-based and space-telescopes, the things it will reveal about our Universe and how it evolved over time are expected to be truly groundbreaking.
Astronomers have discovered the most distant supernova yet, at a distance of 10.5 billion light years from Earth. The supernova, named DES16C2nm, is a cataclysmic explosion that signaled the end of a massive star some 10.5 billion years ago. Only now is the light reaching us. The team of astronomers behind the discovery have published their results in a new paper available at arXiv.
“…sometimes you just have to go out and look up to find something amazing.” – Dr. Bob Nichol, University of Portsmouth.
The supernova was discovered by astronomers involved with the Dark Energy Survey (DES), a collaboration of astronomers in different countries. The DES’s job is to map several hundred million galaxies, to help us find out more about dark energy. Dark Energy is the mysterious force that we think is causing the accelerated expansion of the Universe.
DES16C2nm was first detected in August 2016. Its distance and extreme brightness were confirmed in October that year with three of our most powerful telescopes – the Very Large Telescope and the Magellan Telescope in Chile, and the Keck Observatory, in Hawaii.
DES16C2nm is what’s known as a superluminous supernova (SLSN), a type of supernova only discovered 10 years ago. SLSNs are the rarest—and the brightest—type of supernova that we know of. After the supernova exploded, it left behind a neutron star, which is the densest type of object in the universe. The extreme brightness of SLSNs, which can be 100 times brighter than other supernovae, are thought to be caused by material falling into the neutron star.
“It’s thrilling to be part of the survey that has discovered the oldest known supernova.” – Dr Mathew Smith, lead author, University of Southampton
Lead author of the study Dr Mathew Smith, of the University of Southampton, said: “It’s thrilling to be part of the survey that has discovered the oldest known supernova. DES16C2nm is extremely distant, extremely bright, and extremely rare – not the sort of thing you stumble across every day as an astronomer.”
Dr. Smith went on to say that not only is the discovery exciting just for being so distant, ancient, and rare. It’s also providing insights into the cause of SLSNs: “The ultraviolet light from SLSN informs us of the amount of metal produced in the explosion and the temperature of the explosion itself, both of which are key to understanding what causes and drives these cosmic explosions.”
“Now we know how to find these objects at even greater distances, we are actively looking for more of them as part of the Dark Energy Survey.” – Co-author Mark Sullivan, University of Southampton.
Now that the international team behind the Dark Energy Survey has found one of the SLSNs, they want to find more. Co-author Mark Sullivan, also of the University of Southampton, said: “Finding more distant events, to determine the variety and sheer number of these events, is the next step. Now we know how to find these objects at even greater distances, we are actively looking for more of them as part of the Dark Energy Survey.”
The instrument used by DES is the newly constructed Dark Energy Camera (DECam), which is mounted on the Victor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in the Chilean Andes. DECam is an extremely sensitive 570-megapixel digital camera designed and built just for the Dark Energy Survey.
The Dark Energy Survey involves more than 400 scientists from over 40 international institutions. It began in 2013, and will wrap up its five year mission sometime in 2018. The DES is using 525 nights of observation to carry out a deep, wide-area survey to record information from 300 million galaxies that are billions of light-years from Earth. DES is designed to help us answer a burning question.
According to Einstein’s General Relativity Theory, gravity should be causing the expansion of the universe to slow down. And we thought it was, until 1998 when astronomers studying distant supernovae found that the opposite is true. For some reason, the expansion is speeding up. There are really only two ways of explaining this. Either the theory of General Relativity needs to be replaced, or a large portion of the universe—about 70%—consists of something exotic that we’re calling Dark Energy. And this Dark Energy exerts a force opposite to the attractive force exerted by “normal” matter, causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate.
“…sometimes you just have to go out and look up to find something amazing.” – Dr. Bob Nichol, University of Portsmouth.
To help answer this question, the DES is imaging 5,000 square degrees of the southern sky in five optical filters to obtain detailed information about each of the 300 million galaxies. A small amount of the survey time is also used to observe smaller patches of sky once a week or so, to discover and study thousands of supernovae and other astrophysical transients. And this is how DES16C2nm was discovered.
Study co-author Bob Nichol, Professor of Astrophysics and Director of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth, commented: “Such supernovae were not thought of when we started DES over a decade ago. Such discoveries show the importance of empirical science; sometimes you just have to go out and look up to find something amazing.”
An angry monster lurks in the shoulder of the Hunter. We’re talking about the red giant star Betelgeuse, also known as Alpha Orionis in the constellation Orion. Recently, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) gave us an amazing view of Betelgeuse, one of the very few stars that is large enough to be resolved as anything more than a point of light.
Located 650 light years distant, Betelgeuse is destined to live fast, and die young. The star is only eight million years old – young as stars go. Consider, for instance, our own Sun, which has been shining as a Main Sequence star for more than 500 times longer at 4.6 billion years – and already, the star is destined to go supernova at anytime in the next few thousand years or so, again, in a cosmic blink of an eye.
An estimated 12 times as massive as Sol, Betelgeuse is perhaps a staggering 6 AU or half a billion miles in diameter; plop it down in the center of our solar system, and the star might extend out past the orbit of Jupiter.
As with many astronomical images, the wow factor comes from knowing just what you’re seeing. The orange blob in the image is the hot roiling chromosphere of Betelgeuse, as viewed via ALMA at sub-millimeter wavelengths. Though massive, the star only appears 50 milliarcseconds across as seen from the Earth. To give you some idea just how small a milliarcsecond is, there’s a thousand of them in an arc second, and 60 arc seconds in an arc minute. The average Full Moon is 30 arc minutes across, or 1.8 million milliarcseconds in apparent diameter. Betelgeuse has one of the largest apparent diameters of any star in our night sky, exceeded only by R Doradus at 57 milliarcseconds.
The apparent diameter of Betelgeuse was first measured by Albert Michelson using the Mount Wilson 100-inch in 1920, who obtained an initial value of 240 million miles in diameter, about half the present accepted value, not a bad first attempt.
You can see hints of an asymmetrical bubble roiling across the surface of Betelgeuse in the ALMA image. Betelgeuse rotates once every 8.4 years. What’s going on under that uneasy surface? Infrared surveys show that the star is enveloped in an enormous bow-shock, a powder-keg of a star that will one day provide the Earth with an amazing light show.
Thankfully, Betelgeuse is well out of the supernova “kill zone” of 25 to 100 light years (depending on the study). Along with Spica at 250 light years distant in the constellation Virgo, both are prime nearby supernovae candidates that will on day give astronomers a chance to study the anatomy of a supernova explosion up close. Riding high to the south in the northern hemisphere nighttime sky in the wintertime, +0.5 magnitude Betelgeuse would most likely flare up to negative magnitudes and would easily be visible in the daytime if it popped off in the Spring or Fall. This time of year in June would be the worst, as Alpha Orionis only lies 15 degrees from the Sun!
Of course, this cosmic spectacle could kick off tomorrow… or thousands of years from now. Maybe, the light of Betelgeuse gone supernova is already on its way now, traversing the 650 light years of open space. Ironically, the last naked eye supernova in our galaxy – Kepler’s Star in the constellation Ophiuchus in 1604 – kicked off just before Galileo first turned his crude telescope towards the heavens in 1610.
A supernova is one of the most impressive astronomical events anyone can possibly witness. Characterized by a massive explosion that takes place during the final stages of a massive star’s life (after billions of years of evolution), this sort of event is understandably quite rare. In fact, within the Milky Way Galaxy, a supernova event is likely to happen just once a century.
But within the Fireworks Galaxy (aka. the spiral galaxy NGC 6946), which is located 22 million light years from Earth and has half as many stars as our galaxy, supernovae are about ten times more frequent. On May 13th, while examining this galaxy from his home in Utah, amateur astronomer Patrick Wiggins spotted what was later confirmed to be a Type II supernova.
To break this magnificent astronomical event down, most supernova can be placed into two categories. Type I Supernovae occur when a smaller star has consumed all of its nuclear fuel, and then undergoes core collapse with the help of additional matter accreted from a nearby orbiting star. Type II Supernovae are the result of massive stars undergoing core collapse all on their own.
In both cases, the result is a sudden and extreme increase in brightness, where the star blows off its outer layers and may become temporarily brighter than all the other stars in its galaxy. It then spends the next few months slowly fading until it becomes a white dwarf. It was while surveying the Fireworks galaxy with his own telescope that Wiggins noticed such a sudden burst in brightness, which had not been there just two nights before.
Wiggins finding was confirmed a day later (May 14th) by two experts in supernovae – Subo Dong and Krzysztof Z. Stanek, two professors from Peking University and Ohio State University, respectively. After conducting observations of their own, they determined that what Wiggins had witnessed was a Type II supernova, which has since been designated as SN 2017eaw.
In addition to being an amateur astronomer, Patrick Wiggins is also the public outreach educator for the University of Utah’s Department of Physics & Astronomy and the NASA Solar System Ambassador to Utah. This supernova, which was the third Wiggins has observed in his lifetime, is also the closest to Earth in three years, being about 22 million light years from Earth.
The last time a supernova was observed exploding this close to Earth was on January 22nd, 2014. At the time, students at the University of London Observatory spotted an exploding star (SN 2014J) in the nearby Cigar Galaxy (aka. M82), which is located around 12 million light years away. This was the closest supernova to be observed in recent decades.
As such, the observation of a supernova at a comparatively close distance to Earth just three years later is a pretty impressive feat. And it is an additional feather in the cap of an amateur astronomer whose resume is already quite impressive! Besides the three supernova he was observed, Wiggins has received many accolades over the years for his contributions to astronomy.
There are a lot of ways that life on Earth could come to an end: an asteroid strike, global climate catastrophe, or nuclear war are among them. But perhaps the most haunting would be death by supernova, because there’s absolutely nothing we could do about it. We’d be sitting ducks.
New research suggest that a supernova’s kill zone is bigger than we thought; about 25 light years bigger, to be exact.
Iron in the Ocean
In 2016, researchers confirmed that Earth has been hit with the effects from multiple supernovae. The presence of iron 60 in the seabed confirms it. Iron 60 is an isotope of iron produced in supernova explosions, and it was found in fossilized bacteria in sediments on the ocean floor. Those iron 60 remnants suggest that two supernovae exploded near our solar system, one between 6.5 to 8.7 million years ago, and another as recently as 2 million years ago.
Iron 60 is extremely rare here on Earth because it has a short half life of 2.6 million years. Any of the iron 60 created at the time of Earth’s formation would have decayed into something else by now. So when researchers found the iron 60 on the ocean floor, they reasoned that it must have another source, and that logical source is a supernova.
This evidence was the smoking gun for the idea that Earth has been struck by supernovae. But the questions it begs are, what effect did that supernova have on life on Earth? And how far away do we have to be from a supernova to be safe?
“…we can look for events in the history of the Earth that might be connected to them (supernova events).” – Dr. Adrian Melott, Astrophysicist, University of Kansas.
In a press release from the University of Kansas, astrophysicist Adrian Melott talked about recent research into supernovae and the effects they can have on Earth. “This research essentially proves that certain events happened in the not-too-distant past,” said Melott, a KU professor of physics and astronomy. “They make it clear approximately when they happened and how far away they were. Knowing that, we can consider what the effect may have been with definite numbers. Then we can look for events in the history of the Earth that might be connected to them.”
Earlier work suggested that a supernova kill zone is about 25-30 light years. If a supernova exploded that close to Earth, it would trigger a mass extinction. Bye-bye humanity. But new work suggests that 25 light years is an under-estimation, and that a supernova 50 light years away would be powerful enough to cause a mass extinction.
Supernovae: A Force Driving Evolution?
But extinction is just one effect a supernova could have on Earth. Supernovae can have other effects, and they might not all be negative. It’s possible that a supernovae about 2.6 million years ago even drove human evolution.
“Our local research group is working on figuring out what the effects were likely to have been,” Melott said. “We really don’t know. The events weren’t close enough to cause a big mass extinction or severe effects, but not so far away that we can ignore them either. We’re trying to decide if we should expect to have seen any effects on the ground on the Earth.”
There are a number of variables that come into play when trying to determine the effects of a supernova, and one of them is the idea of the Local Bubble. The Local Bubble itself is the result of one or more supernova explosion that occurred as long as 20 million years ago. The Local Bubble is a 300 light year diameter bubble of expanding gas in our arm of the Milky Way galaxy, where our Solar System currently resides. We’ve been travelling through it for the last five to ten million years. Inside this bubble, the magnetic field is weak and disordered.
Melott’s paper focused on the effects that a supernova about 2.6 million years ago would have on Earth in two instances: while both were within the Local Bubble, and while both were outside the Local Bubble.
The disrupted magnetic field inside the Local Bubble can in essence magnify the effects a supernova can have on Earth. It can increase the cosmic rays that reach Earth by a factor of a few hundred. This can increase the ionization in the Earth’s troposphere, which mean that life on Earth would be hit with more radiation.
Outside the Local Bubble, the magnetic field is more ordered, so the effect depends on the orientation of the magnetic field. The ordered magnetic field can either aim more radiation at Earth, or it could in a sense deflect it, much like our magnetosphere does now.
Focusing on the Pleistocene
Melott’s paper looks into the connection between the supernova and the global cooling that took place during the Pleistocene epoch about 2.6 million years ago. There was no mass extinction at that time, but there was an elevated extinction rate.
According to the paper, it’s possible that increased radiation from a supernova could have changed cloud formation, which would help explain a number of things that happened at the beginning of the Pleistocene. There was increased glaciation, increased species extinction, and Africa grew cooler and changed from predominantly forests to semi-arid grasslands.
Cancer and Mutation
As the paper concludes, it is difficult to know exactly what happened to Earth 2.6 million years ago when a supernova exploded in our vicinity. And it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact distance at which life on Earth would be in trouble.
But high levels of radiation from a supernova could increase the cancer rate, which could contribute to extinction. It could also increase the mutation rate, another contributor to extinction. At the highest levels modeled in this study, the radiation could even reach one kilometer deep into the ocean.
There is no real record of increased cancer in the fossil record, so this study is hampered in that sense. But overall, it’s a fascinating look at the possible interplay between cosmic events and how we and the rest of life on Earth evolved.