This Galaxy Hosted One of the Most Powerful Supernovae Ever Seen

This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image is of the small galaxy known as UGC 5189A. This otherwise unremarkable galaxy was the site of an extraordinarly luminous supernova in 2010. ESA/Hubble & NASA, A. Filippenko

In 2010, an exceptionally luminous supernova exploded in a small galaxy about 150 million light-years away called UGC 5189A. The Hubble Space Telescope has kept its eye on this galaxy because of the extraordinary supernova, which for three years released more than 2.5 billion times the energy of our Sun in visible light alone.

Though the supernova, named SN 2010jl, died down years ago, astronomers are still watching its aftermath.

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Supernovae are the Source of Dust in Early Galaxies

Images of SN 2004et and SN 2017eaw. Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Ori Fox (STScI), Melissa Shahbandeh (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

Every now and then there’s an interesting discovery that helps us fill in a gap in our understanding of the universe. In the case of this latest discovery, we now have confirmation of a process we’ve long assumed, but have had little direct evidence for. It all has to do with cosmic dust.

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What Will the James Webb Space Telescope See? A Whole Bunch of Dust, That’s What

With its helical appearance resembling a snail’s shell, this reflection nebula seems to spiral out from a luminous central star in this new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image. The star in the centre, known as V1331 Cyg and located in the dark cloud LDN 981 — or, more commonly, Lynds 981 — had previously been defined as a T Tauri star. A T Tauri is a young star — or Young Stellar Object — that is starting to contract to become a main sequence star similar to the Sun. What makes V1331Cyg special is the fact that we look almost exactly at one of its poles. Usually, the view of a young star is obscured by the dust from the circumstellar disc and the envelope that surround it. However, with V1331Cyg we are actually looking in the exact direction of a jet driven by the star that is clearing the dust and giving us this magnificent view. This view provides an almost undisturbed view of the star and its immediate surroundings allowing astronomers to study it in greater detail and look for features that might suggest the formation of a verylow-mass object in the outer circumstellar disc.

When it comes to the first galaxies, the James Webb Space Telescope will attempt to understand the formation of those galaxies and their link to the underlying dark matter. In case you didn’t know, most of the matter in our universe is invisible (a.k.a. “dark”), but its gravity binds everything together, including galaxies. So by studying galaxies – and especially their formation – we can get some hints as to how dark matter works. At least, that’s the hope. It turns out that astronomy is a little bit more complicated than that, and one of the major things we have to deal with when studying these distant galaxies is dust. A lot of dust.

That’s right: good old-fashioned dust. And thanks to some fancy simulations, we’re beginning to clear up the picture.

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New VLT Observations Clear Up Dusty Mystery

The dwarf galaxy UGC 5189A, site of the supernova SN 2010jl. Image Credit: ESO

The Universe is overflowing with cosmic dust. Planets form in swirling clouds of dust around a young star; Dust lanes hide more-distant stars in the Milky Way above us; And molecular hydrogen forms on the dust grains in interstellar space.

Even the soot from a candle is very similar to cosmic carbon dust. Both consist of silicate and amorphous carbon grains, although the size grains in the soot are 10 or more times bigger than typical grain sizes in space.

But where does the cosmic dust come from?

A group of astronomers has been able to follow cosmic dust being created in the aftermath of a supernova explosion. The new research not only shows that dust grains form in these massive explosions, but that they can also survive the subsequent shockwaves.

Stars initially draw their energy by fusing hydrogen into helium deep within their cores. But eventually a star will run out of fuel. After slightly messy physics, the star’s contracted core will begin to fuse helium into carbon, while a shell above the core continues to fuse hydrogen into helium.

The pattern continues for medium to high mass stars, creating layers of different nuclear burning around the star’s core. So the cycle of star birth and death has steadily produced and dispersed more heavy elements throughout cosmic history, providing the substances necessary for cosmic dust.

“The problem has been that even though dust grains composed of heavy elements would form in supernovae, the supernova explosion is so violent that the grains of dust may not survive,” said coauthor Jens Hjorth, head of the Dark Cosmology Center at the Niels Bohr Institute in a press release. “But cosmic grains of significant size do exist, so the mystery has been how they are formed and have survived the subsequent shockwaves.”

The team led by Christa Gall used ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in northern Chile to observe a supernova, dubbed SN2010jl, nine times in the months following the explosion, and for a tenth time 2.5 years after the explosion. They observed the supernova in both visible and near-infrared wavelengths.

SN2010jl was 10 times brighter than the average supernova, making the exploding star 40 times the mass of the Sun.

“By combining the data from the nine early sets of observations we were able to make the first direct measurements of how the dust around a supernova absorbs the different colours of light,” said lead author Christa Gall from Aarhus University. “This allowed us to find out more about the dust than had been possible before.”

The results indicate that dust formation starts soon after the explosion and continues over a long time period.

The dust initially forms in material that the star expelled into space even before it exploded. Then a second wave of dust formation occurs, involving ejected material from the supernova. Here the dust grains are massive — one thousandth of a millimeter in diameter — making them resilient to any following shockwaves.

“When the star explodes, the shockwave hits the dense gas cloud like a brick wall. It is all in gas form and incredibly hot, but when the eruption hits the ‘wall’ the gas gets compressed and cools down to about 2,000 degrees,” said Gall. “At this temperature and density elements can nucleate and form solid particles. We measured dust grains as large as around one micron (a thousandth of a millimeter), which is large for cosmic dust grains. They are so large that they can survive their onward journey out into the galaxy.”

If the dust production in SN2010jl continues to follow the observed trend, by 25 years after the supernova explosion, the total mass of dust will have half the mass of the Sun.

The results have been published in Nature and are available for download here. Niels Bohr Institute’s press release and ESO’s press release are also available.