Stars Boil Before They Blow Up, Says NuSTAR

Supernovas are some of the most energetic and powerful events in the observable Universe. Briefly outshining entire galaxies, they are the final, dying  outbursts of stars several times more massive than our Sun. And while we know supernovas are responsible for creating the heavy elements necessary for everything from planets to people to power tools,  scientists have long struggled to determine the mechanics behind the sudden collapse and subsequent explosion of massive stars.

Now, thanks to NASA’s NuSTAR mission, we have our first solid clues to what happens before a star goes “boom.”

The image above shows the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A (or Cas A for short) with NuSTAR data in blue and observations from the Chandra X-ray Observatory in red, green, and yellow. It’s the shockwave left over from the explosion of a star about 15 to 25 times more massive than our Sun over 330 years ago*, and it glows in various wavelengths of light depending on the temperatures and types of elements present.

Artist's concept of NuSTAR in orbit. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist’s concept of NuSTAR in orbit. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Previous observations with Chandra revealed x-ray emissions from expanding shells and filaments of hot iron-rich gas in Cas A, but they couldn’t peer deep enough to get a better idea of what’s inside the structure. It wasn’t until NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array — that’s NuSTAR to those in the know — turned its x-ray vision on Cas A that the missing puzzle pieces could be found.

And they’re made of radioactive titanium.

Many models have been made (using millions of hours of supercomputer time) to try to explain core-collapse supernovas. One of the leading ones has the star ripped apart by powerful jets firing from its poles — something that’s associated with even more powerful (but focused) gamma-ray bursts. But it didn’t appear that jets were the cause with Cas A, which doesn’t exhibit elemental remains within its jet structures… and besides, the models relying on jets alone didn’t always result in a full-blown supernova.

As it turns out, the presence of asymmetric clumps of radioactive titanium deep within the shells of Cas A, revealed in high-energy x-rays by NuSTAR, point to a surprisingly different process at play: a “sloshing” of material within the progenitor star that kickstarts a shockwave, ultimately tearing it apart.

Watch an animation of how this process occurs:

The sloshing, which occurs over a time span of a mere couple hundred milliseconds — literally in the blink of an eye — is likened to boiling water on a stove. When the bubbles break through the surface, the steam erupts.

Only in this case the eruption leads to the insanely powerful detonation of an entire star, blasting a shockwave of high-energy particles into the interstellar medium and scattering a periodic tableful of heavy elements into the galaxy.

In the case of Cas A, titanium-44 was ejected, in clumps that echo the shape of the original sloshing asymmetry. NuSTAR was able to image and map the titanium, which glows in x-ray because of its radioactivity (and not because it’s heated by expanding shockwaves, like other lighter elements visible to Chandra.)

“Until we had NuSTAR we couldn’t really see down into the core of the explosion,” said Caltech astronomer Brian Grefenstette during a NASA teleconference on Feb. 19.

Illustration of the pre-supernova star in Cassiopeia A. It's thought that its layers were "turned inside out" just before it detonated. (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)
Illustration of the pre-supernova star in Cassiopeia A. It’s thought that its layers were “turned inside out” just before it detonated. (NASA/CXC/M.Weiss)

“Previously, it was hard to interpret what was going on in Cas A because the material that we could see only glows in X-rays when it’s heated up. Now that we can see the radioactive material, which glows in X-rays no matter what, we are getting a more complete picture of what was going on at the core of the explosion.”

– Brian Grefenstette, lead author, Caltech

Okay, so great, you say. NASA’s NuSTAR has found the glow of titanium in the leftovers of a blown-up star, Chandra saw some iron, and we know it sloshed and ‘boiled’ a fraction of a second before it exploded. So what?

“Now you should care about this,” said astronomer Robert Kirshner of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “Supernovae make the chemical elements, so if you bought an American car, it wasn’t made in Detroit two years ago; the iron atoms in that steel were manufactured in an ancient supernova explosion that took place five billion years ago. And NuSTAR shows that the titanium that’s in your Uncle Jack’s replacement hip were made in that explosion too.

“We’re all stardust, and NuSTAR is showing us where we came from. Including our replacement parts. So you should care about this… and so should your Uncle Jack.”

And it’s not just core-collapse supernovas that NuSTAR will be able to investigate. Other types of supernovas will be scrutinized too — in the case of SN2014J, a Type Ia that was spotted in M82 in January, even right after they occur.

“We know that those are a type of white dwarf star that detonates,” NuSTAR principal investigator Fiona Harrison responded to Universe Today during the teleconference. “This is very exciting news… NuSTAR has been looking at [SN2014J] for weeks, and we hope to be able to say something about that explosion as well.”

Previous imaging with Chandra (left, middle) is combined with new data from NuSTAR (right) to make a complete image of a supernova remnant. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/CXC/SAO)
Previous imaging with Chandra (left, middle) is combined with new data from NuSTAR (right) to make a complete image of a supernova remnant. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/CXC/SAO)

One of the most valuable achievements of the recent NuSTAR findings is having a new set of observed constraints to place on future models of core-collapse supernovas… which will help provide answers — and likely new questions — about how stars explode, even hundreds or thousands of years after they do.

“NuSTAR is pioneering science, and you have to expect that when you get new results, it’ll open up as many questions as you answer,” said Kirshner.

Launched in June of 2012, NuSTAR is the first focusing hard X-ray telescope to orbit Earth and the first telescope capable of producing maps of radioactive elements in supernova remnants.

Read more on the JPL news release here, and listen to the full press conference here.

*As Cas A resides 11,000 light-years from Earth, the actual date of the supernova would be about 11,330 years ago. Give or take a few.

Cosmic C.S.I.: Searching for the Origins of the Solar System in Two Grains of Sand

Composite Spitzer, Hubble, and Chandra image of supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. A new study shows that a supernova as far away as 50 light years could have devastating effects on life on Earth. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI/CXC/SAO)

“The total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth,” Carl Sagan famously said in his iconic TV series Cosmos. But when two of those grains are made of a silicon-and-oxygen compound called silica, and they were found hiding deep inside ancient meteorites recovered from Antarctica, they very well may be from a star… possibly even the one whose explosive collapse sparked the formation of the Solar System itself.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis with support from the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences have announced the discovery of two microscopic grains of silica in primitive meteorites originating from two different sources. This discovery is surprising because silica — one of the main components of sand on Earth today — is not one of the minerals thought to have formed within the Sun’s early circumstellar disk of material.

Instead, it’s thought that the two silica grains were created by a single supernova that seeded the early solar system with its cast-off material and helped set into motion the eventual formation of the planets.

According to a news release by Washington University, “it’s a bit like learning the secrets of the family that lived in your house in the 1800s by examining dust particles they left behind in cracks in the floorboards.”

A 3.5-cm chondrite meteorite found in Antarctica in Nov. 1998. Dark meteorites show up well against the icy terrain of Antarctica. (Carnegie Mellon University)
A 3.5-cm chondrite meteorite found in Antarctica in Nov. 1998. Dark meteorites show up well against the icy terrain of Antarctica. (Carnegie Mellon University)

Until the 1960s most scientists believed the early Solar System got so hot that presolar material could not have survived. But in 1987 scientists at the University of Chicago discovered miniscule diamonds in a primitive meteorite (ones that had not been heated and reworked). Since then they’ve found grains of more than ten other minerals in primitive meteorites.

The scientists can tell these grains came from ancient stars because they have highly unusual isotopic signatures, and different stars produce different proportions of isotopes.

But the material from which our Solar System was fashioned was mixed and homogenized before the planets formed. So all of the planets and the Sun have the pretty much the same “solar” isotopic composition.

Meteorites, most of which are pieces of asteroids, have the solar composition as well, but trapped deep within the primitive ones are pure samples of stars, and the isotopic compositions of these presolar grains can provide clues to their complex nuclear and convective processes.

The layered structure of a star about to go supernova; different layers contain different elements (Wikimedia)
The layered structure of a star about to go supernova; different layers contain different elements (Wikimedia)

Some models of stellar evolution predict that silica could condense in the cooler outer atmospheres of stars, but others say silicon would be completely consumed by the formation of magnesium- or iron-rich silicates, leaving none to form silica.

“We didn’t know which model was right and which was not, because the models had so many parameters,” said Pierre Haenecour, a graduate student in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University and the first author on a paper to be published in the May 1 issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Under the guidance of physics professor Dr. Christine Floss, who found some of the first silica grains in a meteorite in 2009, Haenecour investigated slices of a primitive meteorite brought back from Antarctica and located a single grain of silica out of 138 presolar grains. The grain he found was rich in oxygen-18, signifying its source as from a core-collapse supernova.

Finding that along with another oxygen-18-enriched silica grain identified within another meteorite by graduate student Xuchao Zhao, Haenecour and his team set about figuring out how such silica grains could form within the collapsing layers of a dying star. They found they could reproduce the oxygen-18 enrichment of the two grains through the mixing of small amounts of material from a star’s oxygen-rich inner zones and the oxygen-18-rich helium/carbon zone with large amounts of material from the outer hydrogen envelope of the supernova.

In fact, Haenecour said, the mixing that produced the composition of the two grains was so similar, the grains might well have come from the same supernova — possibly the very same one that sparked the collapse of the molecular cloud that formed our Solar System.

“It’s a bit like learning the secrets of the family that lived in your house in the 1800s by examining dust particles they left behind in cracks in the floorboards.”

Ancient meteorites, a few microscopic grains of stellar sand, and a lot of lab work… it’s an example of cosmic forensics at its best!

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

Neutron Star at Core of Cas A Has Carbon Atmosphere

A Chandra X-ray Observatory image of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. Credit: NASA/CXC

Supernova remnant Cassiopeia A (Cas A) has always been an enigma. While the explosion that created this supernova was obviously a powerful event, the visual brightness of the outburst that occurred over 300 years ago was much less than a normal supernova, — and in fact, was overlooked in the 1600’s — and astronomers don’t know why. Another mystery is whether the explosion that produced Cas A left behind a neutron star, black hole, or nothing at all. But in 1999, astronomers discovered an unknown bright object at the core of Cas A. Now, new observations with the Chandra X-Ray Observatory show this object is a neutron star. But the enigmas don’t end there: this neutron star has a carbon atmosphere. This is the first time this type of atmosphere has been detected around such a small, dense object.

A Chandra X-ray Observatory image of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, with an artist's impression of the neutron star at the center of the remnant. The discovery of a carbon atmosphere on this neutron star resolves a ten-year old mystery surrounding this object.  Credit: Chandra image: NASA/CXC/Southampton/W.Ho; illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
A Chandra X-ray Observatory image of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, with an artist's impression of the neutron star at the center of the remnant. The discovery of a carbon atmosphere on this neutron star resolves a ten-year old mystery surrounding this object. Credit: Chandra image: NASA/CXC/Southampton/W.Ho; illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

The object at the core is very small – only about 20 km wide, which was key to identifying it as a neutron star, said Craig Heinke from the University of Alberta. Heinke is co-author with Wynn Ho of the University of Southampton, UK on a paper which appears in the Nov. 5 edition of Nature.

“The only two kinds of stars that we know of that are this small are neutron stars and black holes,” Heinke told Universe Today. “We can rule out that this is a black hole, because no light can escape from black holes, so any X-rays we see from black holes are actually from material falling down into the black hole. Such X-rays would be highly variable, since you never see the same material twice, but we don’t see any fluctuations in the brightness of this object.”

Heinke said the Chandra X-ray Observatory is the only telescope that has sharp enough vision to observe this object inside such a bright supernova remnant.

But the most unusual aspect of this neutron star is its carbon atmosphere. Neutron stars are mostly made of neutrons, but they have a thin layer of normal matter on the surface, including a thin–10 cm–very hot atmosphere. Previously studied neutron stars all have hydrogen atmospheres, which is expected, as the intense gravity of the neutron star stratifies the atmosphere, putting the lightest element, hydrogen, on top.

But not so with this object in Cas A.

“We were able to produce models for the X-ray radiation of a neutron star with several different possible atmospheres,” Heinke said in an email interview. “Only the carbon atmosphere can explain all the data we see, so we are pretty sure this neutron star has a carbon atmosphere, the first time we’ve seen a different atmosphere on a neutron star.”

An artist's impression of the neutron star in Cas A showing the tiny extent of the carbon atmosphere. The Earth's atmosphere is shown at the same scale as the neutron star.  Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss
An artist's impression of the neutron star in Cas A showing the tiny extent of the carbon atmosphere. The Earth's atmosphere is shown at the same scale as the neutron star. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

An artist’s impression of the neutron star in Cas A showing the tiny extent of the carbon atmosphere. The Earth’s atmosphere is shown at the same scale as the neutron star. Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

So how does Heinke and his team explain the lack of hydrogen and helium on this neutron star? Think of Cas A as being a baby.

“We think we understand that as due to the really young age of this object–we see it at the tender age of only 330 years old, compared to other neutron stars that are thousands of years old,” he said. “During the supernova explosion that created this neutron star (as the core of the star collapses down to a city-sized object, with an incredibly high density higher than atomic nuclei), the neutron star was heated to high temperatures, up to a billion degrees. It’s now cooled down to a few million degrees, but we think its high temperatures were sufficient to produce nuclear fusion on the neutron star surface, fusing the hydrogen and helium to carbon.”

Because of this discovery, researchers now have access to the complete life cycle of a supernova, and will learn more about the role exploding stars play in the makeup of the universe. For example, most minerals found on Earth are the products of supernovae.

“This discovery helps us understand how neutron stars are born in violent supernova explosions,” said Heinke.

Source: Interview with Craig Heinke