Pan-STARRS Discovers two Super Supernovae

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Supernovae are the brightest phenomenon in the current universe. As massive stars die as supernovae, they briefly outshine the rest of the stars in their galaxy and are visible, at least once the light gets there, from across the universe. Until recently, astronomers thought they pretty much had supernovae figured out; they could either form from the direct collapse of a massive core or the tipping over the Chandrasekhar limit as a white dwarf accreted neighbor. These methods seemed to work well until astronomers began to discover “ultra-luminous” supernovae beginning with SN 2005ap. The usual suspects could not produce such bright explosions and astronomers began looking for new methods as well as new ultra-luminous supernovae to help understand these outliers. Recently, the automated sky survey Pan-STARRS netted two more.

Since 2010, the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARR) has been conducting observations atop Mount Haleakala and is controlled by the University of Hawaii. Its primary mission is to search for objects that may pose a threat to Earth. To do this, it repeatedly scans the northern sky, looking at 10 patches per night and cycling through various color filters. While it has been very successful in this area, the observations can also be used to study objects that change on short timescales such as supernovae.

The first of the two new supernovae, PS1-10ky was already in the process of exploding as Pan-STARRS came into operation, thus, the brightness curve was incomplete since it was discovered near peak brightness and no data exists to catch it as it brightened. However, for the second, PS1-10awh, the team caught while in the process of brightening and have a complete light curve for the object. Combining the two, the team, led by Laura Chomiuk at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, was able to get a full picture of just how these titanic supernovae behave. And what’s more, since they were observed with multiple filters, the team was able to understand just how the energy was distributed. Additionally, the team was able to use other instruments, including Gemini, to get spectroscopic information.

The two new supernovae are very similar in many regards to the other ultra-luminous supernovae discovered previously, including SN 2010gx and SCP 06F6. All of these objects have been exceptionally bright with little absorption in their spectra. What little they did have was due to partially ionized carbon, silicon, and magnesium. The average peak brightness was -22.5 magnitudes where as typical core collapse supernovae peak around -19.5. The presence of these lines allowed astronomers to measure the expansion velocity for the new objects as 40,000 km/sec and place a distance to these objects as around 7 billion light years (previous ultra-luminous supernovae like these have been between 2 and 5 billion light years).

But what could power these leviathans? The team considered three scenarios. The first was radioactive decay. The violence of supernovae explosions injects atomic nuclei with additional protons and neutrons creating unstable isotopes which rapidly decay giving off visible light. This process is generally implicated in the fading out of supernovae as this decay process withers out slowly. However, based on the observations, the team concluded that it should not be possible to create sufficient amounts of the radioactive elements necessary to account for the observed brightness.

Another possibility was a rapidly rotating magnetar underwent a rapid change in its rotation. This sudden change would throw off large large chunks of material from the surface which could, in extreme cases, match the observed expansion velocity of these objects.

Lastly, the team considers a more typical supernova expanding into a relatively dense medium. In this case, the shockwave produced by the supernova would interact with the cloud around the star and the kinetic energy would heat the gas, causing it to glow. This too could reproduce many of the observed features of the supernova, but had the requirement that the star shed large amounts of material just before exploding. Some evidence is given for this as being a common occurrence in massive Luminous Blue Variable stars observed in the nearby universe. The team notes that this hypothesis may be tested by searching for radio emission as the shockwave interacted with the gas.

Burned Out Stars Do A Deadly Last Dance

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“Well, I don’t know, but I’ve been told… You never slow down, you never grow old.” Well, Tom Petty might not ever grow old, but stars do. In this case it’s a pair white dwarf stars and they’re locked in a death dance that has them spiraling around each other in just 13 minutes. Astronomers estimated that in about 900,000 years the pair will merge… and what a party that will be!

Traveling in an orbit that’s currently carrying them at 370 miles per second (600 km/s), these two burnt-out stellar cores are heading towards a supernova ending. Right now the brighter of the pair is about the size of Neptune and carries about one quarter of our Sun’s mass. Its companion contains twice as much mass and is about the size of Earth. What’s peculiar is the incredible speed at which they are converging.

“I nearly fell out of my chair at the telescope when I saw one star change its speed by a staggering 750 miles per second in just a few minutes,” said Smithsonian astronomer Warren Brown, lead author of the paper reporting the find.

Using the MMT telescope at the Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins, Arizona, researchers have been looking for just such eclectic white dwarf pairings. Because of their close proximity, they can only be separated spectroscopically and their relative motions then determined. Fortunately, this unusual set are eclipsing, doing their two-step at a very predictable rate. “If there were aliens living on a planet around this star system, they would see one of their two suns disappear every 6 minutes – a fantastic light show.” said Smithsonian astronomer and co-author Mukremin Kilic.

What’s really cool about this observing project is its implications as related to Einstein’s theories. Their movements should create wrinkles in the fabric space-time. These gravitational waves pull away at the energy – allowing the pair to get closer at each pass and their orbits to accelerate.

“Though we have not yet directly measured gravitational waves with modern instruments, we can test their existence by measuring the change in the separation of these two stars,” said co-author J. J. Hermes, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. “Because they don’t seem to be exchanging mass, this system is an exceptionally clean laboratory to perform such a test.”

Just as soon as the pair emerges from behind the Sun, observing will begin again. Some models predict merging white dwarf pairs of this type could be a rare class of unusually faint stellar explosions called underluminous supernovae – or just the source of many other kinds of supernovae. “If these systems are responsible for underluminous supernovae, we will detect these binary white dwarf systems with the same frequency that we see the supernovae. Our survey isn’t complete, but so far, the numbers agree,” said Brown.

What can we say besides, “Last dance with Mary Jane… One more time to kill the pain… I feel summer creepin’ in.”

Original Story Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Where Did Early Cosmic Dust Come From? New Research Says Supernovae

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From a JPL Press Release:

New observations from the infrared Herschel Space Observatory reveal that an exploding star expelled the equivalent of between 160,000 and 230,000 Earth masses of fresh dust. This enormous quantity suggests that exploding stars, called supernovae, are the answer to the long-standing puzzle of what supplied our early universe with dust.

“This discovery illustrates the power of tackling a problem in astronomy with different wavelengths of light,” said Paul Goldsmith, the NASA Herschel project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who is not a part of the current study. “Herschel’s eye for longer-wavelength infrared light has given us new tools for addressing a profound cosmic mystery.”

Cosmic dust is made of various elements, such as carbon, oxygen, iron and other atoms heavier than hydrogen and helium. It is the stuff of which planets and people are made, and it is essential for star formation. Stars like our sun churn out flecks of dust as they age, spawning new generations of stars and their orbiting planets.

Astronomers have for decades wondered how dust was made in our early universe. Back then, sun-like stars had not been around long enough to produce the enormous amounts of dust observed in distant, early galaxies. Supernovae, on the other hand, are the explosions of massive stars that do not live long.

The new Herschel observations are the best evidence yet that supernovae are, in fact, the dust-making machines of the early cosmos.

This plot shows energy emitted from a supernova remnant called SN 1987A. Previously, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope detected warm dust around the object. Image credit: ESA/NASA-JPL/UCL/STScI

“The Earth on which we stand is made almost entirely of material created inside a star,” explained the principal investigator of the survey project, Margaret Meixner of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md. “Now we have a direct measurement of how supernovae enrich space with the elements that condense into the dust that is needed for stars, planets and life.”

The study, appearing in the July 8 issue of the journal Science, focused on the remains of the most recent supernova to be witnessed with the naked eye from Earth. Called SN 1987A, this remnant is the result of a stellar blast that occurred 170,000 light-years away and was seen on Earth in 1987. As the star blew up, it brightened in the night sky and then slowly faded over the following months. Because astronomers are able to witness the phases of this star’s death over time, SN 1987A is one of the most extensively studied objects in the sky.

A new view from the Hubble Space Telescope shows how supernova 1987A has recently brightened.

Initially, astronomers weren’t sure if the Herschel telescope could even see this supernova remnant. Herschel detects the longest infrared wavelengths, which means it can see very cold objects that emit very little heat, such as dust. But it so happened that SN 1987A was imaged during a Herschel survey of the object’s host galaxy — a small neighboring galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud (it’s called large because it’s bigger than its sister galaxy, the Small Magellanic Cloud).

After the scientists retrieved the images from space, they were surprised to see that SN 1987A was aglow with light. Careful calculations revealed that the glow was coming from enormous clouds of dust — consisting of 10,000 times more material than previous estimates. The dust is minus 429 to minus 416 degrees Fahrenheit (about minus 221 to 213 Celsius) — colder than Pluto, which is about minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit (204 degrees Celsius).

“Our Herschel discovery of dust in SN 1987A can make a significant understanding in the dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud,” said Mikako Matsuura of University College London, England, the lead author of the Science paper. “In addition to the puzzle of how dust is made in the early universe, these results give us new clues to mysteries about how the Large Magellanic Cloud and even our own Milky Way became so dusty.”

Previous studies had turned up some evidence that supernovae are capable of producing dust. For example, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which detects shorter infrared wavelengths than Herschel, found 10,000 Earth-masses worth of fresh dust around the supernova remnant called Cassiopea A. Hershel can see even colder material, and thus the coldest reservoirs of dust. “The discovery of up to 230,000 Earths worth of dust around SN 1987A is the best evidence yet that these monstrous blasts are indeed mighty dust makers,” said Eli Dwek, a co-author at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Herschel is led by the European Space Agency with important contributions from NASA.

See also the ESA press release on this research.

Dark Energy… And Zombie Stars!

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It’s called a Type Ia supernovae and it shines with the luminosity of a billion suns. For all intents and purposes, once they explode they’re dead… But it ain’t so. They might have a core of ash, but they come back to life by sucking matter from a companion star. Zombies? You bet. Zombie stars… And they can be used to measure dark energy.

Why are Type Ia supernovae findings important? Right now they’re instrumental in helping researchers like Andy Howell, adjunct professor of physics at UCSB and staff scientist at Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT), take a closer look at the mysteries of dark energy. “We only discovered this about 20 years ago by using Type Ia supernovae, thermonuclear supernovae, as standard or ‘calibrated’ candles,” said Howell. “These stars are tools for measuring dark energy. They’re all about the same brightness, so we can use them to figure out distances in the universe.”

As a rule, white dwarf stars which end their lives as Type Ia supernovae have approximately the same mass. These findings were so regular that they are considered a base rule of physics, but rules are usually made to be broken. In this case there’s a new class of Type Ia supernovae – one that goes beyond the typical mass. These stars that go beyond their limits have scientists confused as to their nature. We know they are part of a binary system… But shouldn’t only the white dwarf be the one to explode?

D. Andrew Howell Credit: Katrina Marcinowski
Howell presented a hypothesis to understand this new class of objects. “One idea is that two white dwarfs could have merged together; the binary system could be two white dwarf stars,” he said. “Then, over time, they spiral into each other and merge. When they merge, they blow up. This may be one way to explain what is going on.” Now astrophysicists utilize Type Ia supernovae to track universal expansion. “What we’ve found is that the universe hasn’t been expanding at the same rate,” said Howell. “And it hasn’t been slowing down as everyone thought it would be, due to gravity. Instead, it has been speeding up. There’s a force that counteracts gravity and we don’t know what it is. We call it dark energy.”

Once upon a time, Albert Einstein introduced the cosmological constant to help justify his theory of relativity, but it only applied to a static state. It didn’t take long before Edwin Hubble corrected him and Einstein later referred to his failure to predict the expansion of the universe as the “biggest blunder” of his life. But it wasn’t. “It turns out that this cosmological constant was actually one of his greatest successes,” said Howell. “This is because it’s what we need now to explain the data.”

We could argue all day about dark energy and its properties, along with whether or not it constitutes three-quarters of our known universe. However, it is Howell’s theory that it just might be a property of space. “Space itself has some energy associated with it,” said Howell. “That’s what the results seem to indicate, that dark energy is distributed everywhere in space. It looks like it’s a property of the vacuum, but we’re not completely sure. We’re trying to figure out how sure are we of that – and if we can improve Type Ia supernovae as standard candles we can make our measurements better.”

Unlike historic supernova observations, today’s technology allows even the backyard astronomer to make discoveries and report them. Take the latest M51 findings for example… It’s not just the eyes of the expert on the skies. Thanks to advances in cameras and equipment, we’re looking further away – and more accurately – than ever before. “Now we have huge digital cameras on our telescopes, and really big telescopes,” said Howell, “We’ve been able to survey large parts of the sky, regularly. We find supernovae daily.”

“The next decade holds real promise of making serious progress in the understanding of nearly every aspect of supernovae Ia, from their explosion physics, to their progenitors, to their use as standard candles,” writes Howell in Nature Communications. “And with this knowledge may come the key to unlocking the darkest secrets of dark energy.”

As we dig through the ditches and burn through the witches… 😉

Original Story Source: UC Santa Barbara.

Young Supernova Has Bright Future

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Way back in 1987 we received a present from our neighboring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. It was an unprecedented event and the most exciting thing astronomers had seen in nearly four hundred years. It was a chance to study stellar evolution first-hand – with details allowed by modern equipment. Just what was it? The closest supernova explosion to date…

On June 8, 2011 a team of astronomers announced the supernova debris of SN 1987A, which has dimmed with time, is brightening again. The observations conclude a different power source is igniting the debris – beginning the transition from a supernova to a supernova remnant. “Supernova 1987A has become the youngest supernova remnant visible to us,” said Robert Kirshner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and leader of the long-term SN 1987A study with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

Supernova remnants are made up of material ejected from the parent exploding star and interstellar matter picked up along the way. Long before the cataclysmic event, a ring of material is ejected – spreading out about one light-year (6 trillion miles) across. Inside the circle, the inner workings of the host star are rushing out to form the expanding debris cloud. It is lit by radioactive decay and brightening points towards a new power source. “It’s only possible to see this brightening because SN 1987A is so close and Hubble has such sharp vision,” Kirshner said.

What can we expect in SN1987A’s future? Right now it’s able to give us valuable information about the last few thousand years of a star’s life. By studying the unusual clumps and bumps in the ring’s structure, astronomers may be able to decode its history… History that will be lost as debris expansion wipes out the structure. “Young supernova remnants have personality,” Kirshner agreed.

For now, this young supernova is allowing us to take a look at a future so bright, it’s gotta’ wear shades.

Original Story Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

New Class of Stellar Explosion Sings the Blues

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A team of astronomers led by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have discovered a new, ultra-bright class of supernova – and it really sings the blues. Possibly one of the most luminous observable objects in the Cosmos, these new types of stellar explosions may help us better understand the origins of starbirth, unravel the mysteries of distant galaxies and even look back into the beginnings of our Universe…

“We’re learning about a whole new class of supernovae that wasn’t known before,” says Robert Quimby, a Caltech postdoctoral scholar and the lead author on a paper to be published in the June 9 on-line issue of the journal Nature. Not only did the team locate four instances of this new class, but the study also helped them unravel the questions behind two previously known supernovae which apparently belong in the same category.

As a graduate student at the University of Texas, Austin, Quimby came to the astronomy forefront in 2007 when he reported the brightest supernova ever found: 100 billion times brighter than the sun and 10 times brighter than most other supernovae. At the time, it was a record. Categorized as 2005ap, it had a rather strange spectral signature – a lack of hydrogen. But Quimby wasn’t the only one in the “class” doing homework, because the Hubble Space Telescope also detected an enigmatic event listed as SCP 06F6. It, too, had an unusual spectrum, but nothing led researchers to surmise it to be similar to 2005ap.

Enter Shri Kulkarni, Caltech’s John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Astronomy and Planetary Science and a coauthor on the paper. They enlisted Quimby as a a founding member of the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) – a project which scans the skies for unrecorded incident flashes of light which could signal possible supernova. With the eye of the 1.2-meter Samuel Oschin Telescope at Palomar Observatory, the colleagues went on to discover an additional four new supernovae events. Measuring the spectra with the 10-meter Keck telescopes in Hawaii, the 5.1-meter telescope at Palomar, and the 4.2-meter William Herschel Telescope in the Canary Islands, the astronomers discovered that all four objects had an unusual spectral signature. Quimby then realized that if you slightly shifted the spectrum of 2005ap—the supernova he had found a couple of years earlier—it looked a lot like these four new objects. The team then plotted all the spectra together. “Boom—it was a perfect match,” he recalls.

From there it didn’t take long to learn to sing the blues. The astronomers quickly figured out that by shifting the spectrum of SCP 06F6 caused it to align with previous findings. The results showed all six supernovae to be a similar type – all with very blue spectra – with the brightest wavelengths shining in the ultraviolet. This was the missing link that connected the two previously unexplained supernovae. “That’s what was most striking about this—that this was all one unified class,” says Mansi Kasliwal, a Caltech graduate student and coauthor on the Nature paper.

Even though astronomers now know these supernovae are related, the rest remains a mystery. “We have a whole new class of objects that can’t be explained by any of the models we’ve seen before,” Quimby says. “What we do know about them is that they are bright and hot—10,000 to 20,000 Kelvin; that they are expanding rapidly at 10,000 kilometers per second; that they lack hydrogen; and that they take about 50 days to fade away—much longer than most supernovae, whose luminosity is often powered by radioactive decay. So there must be some other mechanism that’s making them so bright.”

What could they be? One simulation leads to a pulsational pair-instability and the next points towards a magnetar. No matter what the answer is, the result is the illumination aids astronomers in studying distant dwarf galaxies, allowing them to measure the spectrum of the interstellar gas and uncover their composition. The findings could also “shed light” on what ancient stars may have been like… stretching back into the very beginnings of our Universe. “It is really amazing how rich the night sky continues to be,” Kulkarni says. “In addition to supernovae, the Palomar Transient Factory is making great advances in stellar astronomy as well.”

Original Story Source: California Institute of Technology.

Supernova Discovered in M51 The Whirlpool Galaxy

M51 Hubble Remix

A new supernova (exploding star) has been discovered in the famous Whirlpool Galaxy, M51.

M51, The Whirlpool galaxy is a galaxy found in the constellation of Canes Venatici, very near the star Alkaid in the handle of the saucepan asterism of the big dipper. Easily found with binoculars or a small telescope.

The discovery was made on June 2nd by French astronomers and the supernova is reported to be around magnitude 14. More information (In French) can be found here or translated version here.

Image by BBC Sky at Night Presenter Pete Lawrence

The supernova will be quite tricky to spot visually and you may need a good sized dobsonian or similar telescope to spot it, but it will be a easy target for those interested in astro imaging.

The whirlpool galaxy was the first galaxy discovered with a spiral structure and is one of the most recognisable and famous objects in the sky.

Carina Nebula: Pumping More Than Just Iron

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We are all just star stuff… But when it comes to the elements produced by a star, it just doesn’t get any heavier than iron. So how do more exotic elements come into existence? Try the Great Cosmic Recycler – supernova. Its energy disperses newly synthesized materials right into the interstellar neighborhood where an enriched generation of stars begin life again.

The beautiful Carina Nebula may very well be a literal supernova factory. Encompassing a large field of 1.4 square degrees, Chandra made of a mosaic of 22 individual pointings. In total, the image represents 1.2 million seconds – or nearly two weeks – of Chandra observing time. In addition, multi-wavelength data, such as infrared observations from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Very Large Telescope (VLT), were then added to the mix to reveal that the supernova process has already begun. Clues, such as the lack of bright x-ray sources from Trumpler 15, suggest its massive stars have already been destroyed. In addition, six candidate neutron stars – instead of just one – provide additional evidence that supernova activity is gearing up in Carina.

But stellar destruction isn’t the only evidence Chandra has found. A new population of young massive stars has also been detected… potentially doubling the number of known young, massive stars which are usually destined to be destroyed later in supernova explosions. In the composite image, they appear as bright X-ray sources scattered across the x-ray emission like freckles on a child’s face. But what really holds our interest is the infamous Eta Carinae – a massive, unstable star on the brink of extinction.

Thanks to this latest research, we now know it’s not alone…

What Triggers a Type Ia Supernova? Chandra Finds New Evidence

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What makes a star go boom? A new look at Tycho’s supernova remnant by the Chandra X-ray telescope has supplied astronomers with previously unseen evidence for what could trigger specific type of supernova, a Type Ia supernova explosion. Astronomers have spotted what appears to be material that was blasted off a companion star to a white dwarf when it exploded, creating the supernova seen by Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe in 1572. There is also evidence that this material blocked the explosion debris, creating an “arc” and a “shadow” in the supernova remnant.

There are two main types of supernovae. One is where a massive star – much bigger than our sun — burns all its nuclear fuel and collapses in on itself, which ignites a supernova explosion. Type Ia supernovae, however, are different. Smaller stars eventually turn into white dwarfs at the end of their lives, becoming an ultra-dense ball of carbon and oxygen about the size of the Earth, with the mass of our Sun. In some instances, though, a white dwarf somehow ignites, creating an explosion so bright that it can be seen billions of light years away, across much of the Universe. But astronomers really haven’t understood what causes these explosions to start.

There are a couple of popular theories: one scenario for Type Ia supernovas involves the merger of two white dwarfs. In this case, no companion star or evidence for material blasted off a companion should exist. In the other theory, a white dwarf pulls material from a “normal,” or Sun-like, companion star until a thermonuclear explosion occurs.

Both scenarios may actually occur under different conditions, but the latest Chandra result from Tycho supports the latter one.

This is an artist's impression showing an explanation from scientists for the origin of an X-ray arc in Tycho's supernova remnant. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

The new Chandra images show the famous leftovers of Tycho’s supernova, and reveal for the first time an arc of X-ray emission within the supernova remnant. The shape of the arc is different from any other feature seen in the remnant. This supports the conclusion that a shock wave created the arc when a white dwarf exploded and blew material off the surface of a nearby companion star.

In addition, this new study seems to show how resilient some stars can be, as the supernova explosion appears to have blasted very little material off the companion star. Previously, studies with optical telescopes have revealed a star within the remnant that is moving much more quickly than its neighbors, hinting that it could be the missing companion.

“It looks like this companion star was right next to an extremely powerful explosion and it survived relatively unscathed,” said Q. Daniel Wang of the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, a member of the research team whose paper will appear in the May 1st issue of The Astrophysical Journal. “Presumably it was also given a kick when the explosion occurred. Together with the orbital velocity, this kick makes the companion now travel rapidly across space.”

This image shows iron debris in Tycho's supernova remnant. The site of the supernova explosion is shown, as inferred from the motion of the possible companion to the exploded white dwarf. The position of material stripped off the companion star by the explosion, and forming an X-ray arc, is shown by the white dotted line. This structure is most easily seen in an image showing X-rays from the arc's shock wave. Finally, the arc has blocked debris from the explosion creating a "shadow" in the debris between the red dotted lines, extending from the arc to the edge of the remnant. Credit: NASA/CXC/Chinese Academy of Sciences/F. Lu et al.

Using the properties of the X-ray arc and the candidate stellar companion, the team determined the orbital period and separation between the two stars in the binary system before the explosion. The period was estimated to be about 5 days, and the separation was only about a millionth of a light-year, or less than a tenth the distance between the Sun and the Earth. In comparison, the remnant itself is about 20 light-years across.

Other details of the arc support the idea that it was blasted away from the companion star. For example, the X-ray emission of the remnant shows an apparent “shadow” next to the arc, consistent with the blocking of debris from the explosion by the expanding cone of material stripped from the companion.

“This stripped stellar material was the missing piece of the puzzle for arguing that Tycho’s supernova was triggered in a binary with a normal stellar companion,” said Fangjun Lu of the Institute of High Energy Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. “We now seem to have found this piece.”

Because Type Ia supernova are all of similar brightness, they are used as a standard candle to measure the expansion of the Universe, and this new observation by Chandra has helped to answer at least part of the long-standing – and critical — question of what triggers these bright explosions.

Source: Chandra

Finding the Failed Supernovae

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When high mass stars end their lives, they explode in monumental supernovae. But, when the most massive of these monsters die, theory has predicted that they may not even reveal as much as a whimper as their massive cores implode. Instead, the implosion occurs so quickly, that the rebound and all photons created during it, are immediately swallowed into the newly formed black hole. Estimates have suggested that as much as 20% of stars that are massive enough to form supernovae collapse directly into a black hole without an explosion. These “failed supernovae” would simply disappear from the sky leaving such predictions seemingly impossible to verify. But a new paper explores the potential for neutrinos, subatomic particles that rarely interact with normal matter, could escape during the collapse, and be detected, heralding the death of a giant.

Presently, only one supernova has been detected by its neutrinos. This was supernova 1987a, a relatively close supernova which occurred in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to our own. When this star exploded, the neutrinos escaped the surface of the star and reached detectors on Earth three hours before the shockwave reached the surface, producing a visible brightening. Yet despite the enormity of the eruption, only 24 neutrinos (or more precisely, electron anti-neutrinos), were detected between three detectors.

The further away an event is, the more its neutrinos will be spread out, which in turn, decreases the flux at the detector. With current detectors, the expectation is that they are large enough to detect supernovae events around a rate of 1-3 per century all originating from within the Milky Way and our satellites. But as with most astronomy, the detection radius can be increased with larger detectors. The current generation uses detectors with masses on the order of kilotons of detecting fluid, but proposed detectors would increase this to megatons, pushing the sphere of detectability to as much as 6.5 million light years, which would include our nearest large neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy. With such enhanced capabilities, detectors would be expected to find neutrino bursts on the order of once per decade.

Assuming the calculations are correct and that 20% of supernova implode directly, this means that such gargantuan detectors could detect 1-2 failed supernovae per century. Fortunately, this is slightly enhanced due to the extra mass of the star, which would make the total energy of the event higher, and while this wouldn’t escape as light, would correspond to an increased neutrino output. Thus, the detection sphere could be pushed out to potentially 13 million lightyears, which would incorporate several galaxies with high rates of star formation and consequently, supernoave.

While this puts the potential for detections of failed supernovae on the radar, a bigger problem remains. Say neutrino detectors record a sudden burst of neutrinos. With typical supernovae, this detection would be quickly followed with the optical detection of a supernova, but with a failed supernova, the followup would be absent. The neutrino burst is the beginning and end of the story, which could not initially positively define such an event as different from other supernovae, such as those that form neutron stars.

To tease out the subtle differences, the team modeled the supernovae to examine the energies and durations involved. When comparing failed supernovae to ones forming neutron stars, they predicted that the failed supernovae neutrino bursts would have shorter durations (~1 second) than ones forming neutron stars (~10 seconds). Additionally, the energy imparted in the collision that makes up the detection would be higher for failed supernovae (up to 56 MeV vs 33 MeV). This difference could potentially discriminate between the two types.