Roughly once a day the sky is lit up by a mysterious torrent of energy. These events — known as gamma-ray bursts — represent the most powerful explosions in the cosmos, sending out as much energy in a fraction of a second as our Sun will give off during its entire lifespan.
Yet no one has ever witnessed a gamma-ray burst directly. Instead astronomers are left to study their fading light.
New research from an international team of astronomers has discovered a puzzling feature within one Gamma-ray burst, suggesting that these objects may behave differently than previously thought.
These powerful explosions are thought to be triggered when dying stars collapse into jet-spewing black holes. While this stage only lasts a few minutes, its afterglow — slowly fading emission that can be seen at all wavelengths (including visible light) — will last for a few days to weeks. It is from this afterglow that astronomers meticulously try to understand these enigmatic explosions.
The afterglow emission is formed when the jets collide with the material surrounding the dying star. They cause a shockwave, moving at high velocities, in which electrons are being accelerated to tremendous energies. However, this acceleration process is still poorly understood. The key is in detecting the afterglow’s polarization — the fraction of light waves that move with a preferred plane of vibration.
“Different theories for electron acceleration and light emission within the afterglow all predict different levels of linear polarization, but theories all agreed that there should be no circular polarization in visible light,” said lead author Klaas Wiersema in a press release.
“This is where we came in: we decided to test this by carefully measuring both the linear and circular polarization of one afterglow, of GRB 121024A, detected by the Swift satellite.”
And to their surprise, the team detected circular polarization, meaning that the light waves are moving together in a uniform, spiral motion as they travel. The gamma-ray burst was 1000 times more polarized than expected. “It is a very nice example of observations ruling out most of the existing theoretical predictions,” said Wiersema.
The detection shows that current theories need to be re-examined. Scientists expected any circular polarization to be washed out. The radiation of so many electrons travelings billions of light-years would erase any signal. But the new discovery suggests that there could be some sort of order in the way these electrons travel.
Of course the possibility remains that this particular afterglow was simply an oddball and not all afterglows behave like this.
Nonetheless “extreme shocks like the ones in GRB afterglows are great natural laboratories to push our understanding of physics beyond the ranges that can be explored in laboratories,” said Wiersema.
Last weekend (April 27, 2013), the Fermi and Swift spacecraft witnessed a “shockingly” bright burst of gamma rays from a dying star. Named GRB 130427A, it produced one of the longest lasting and brightest GRBs ever detected.
Because Swift was able to rapidly determine the GRB’s position in the sky, and also because of the duration and brightness of the burst, the GRB was able to be detected in optical, infrared and radio wavelengths by ground-based observatories. Astronomers quickly learned that the GRB had one other near-record breaking quality: it was relatively close, as it took place just 3.6 billion light-years away.
“This GRB is in the closest 5 percent of bursts, so the big push now is to find an emerging supernova, which accompanies nearly all long GRBs at this distance,” said Neil Gehrels, principal investigator for Swift.
“We have waited a long time for a gamma-ray burst this shockingly, eye-wateringly bright,” said Julie McEnery, project scientist for the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. “The GRB lasted so long that a record number of telescopes on the ground were able to catch it while space-based observations were still ongoing.”
No two GRBs are the same, but they are usually classified as either long or short depending on the burst’s duration. Long bursts are more common and last for between 2 seconds and several minutes; short bursts last less than 2 seconds, meaning the action can all over in only milliseconds.
This recent event started just after 3:47 a.m. EDT on April 27. Fermi’s Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) triggered on the eruption of high-energy light in the constellation Leo. The burst occurred as NASA’s Swift satellite was slewing between targets, which delayed its Burst Alert Telescope’s detection by a few seconds.
Fermi’s Large Area Telescope (LAT) recorded one gamma ray with an energy of at least 94 billion electron volts (GeV), or some 35 billion times the energy of visible light, and about three times greater than the LAT’s previous record. The GeV emission from the burst lasted for hours, and it remained detectable by the LAT for the better part of a day, setting a new record for the longest gamma-ray emission from a GRB.
As far as the optical brightness of this event, according to a note posted on the BAUT Forum (the Universe Today and Bad Astronomy forum) data from the SARA-North 1-meter telescope at at Kitt Peak in Arizona at about 04:00 UT on April 29 showed a relative magnitude of about 18.5.
Gamma-ray bursts are the universe’s most luminous explosions, and come from the explosion of massive stars or the collision between two pulsars. Colliding pulsars are usually of short duration, so astronomers can rule out a pulsar collision as causing this event.
If the GRB is near enough, astronomers usually discover a supernova at the site a week or so after the outburst.
NASA said that ground-based observatories are monitoring the location of GRB 130427A and expect to find an underlying supernova by midmonth.
According to astronomer Andrew Levan, there’s an old adage in studying gamma ray bursts: “When you’ve seen one gamma ray burst, you’ve seen … only one gamma ray burst. They aren’t all the same,” he said during a press briefing on April 16 discussing the discovery of a very different kind of GRB – a type that comes in a new long-lasting flavor.
Three of these unusual long-lasting stellar explosions have recently been discovered using the Swift satellite and other international telescopes, and one, named GRB 111209A, is the longest GRB ever observed, with a duration of at least 25,000 seconds, or about 7 hours.
“We have observed the longest gamma ray burst in modern history, and think this event is caused by the death of a blue supergiant,” said Bruce Gendre, a researcher now associated with the French National Center for Scientific Research who led this study while at the Italian Space Agency’s Science Data Center in Frascati, Italy. “It caused the most powerful stellar explosion in recent history, and likely since the Big Bang occurred.”
The astronomers said these three GRBs represent a previously unrecognized class of these stellar explosions, which arise from the catastrophic deaths of supergiant stars hundreds of times larger than our Sun. GRBs are the most luminous and mysterious explosions in the Universe. The blasts emit surges of gamma rays — the most powerful form of light — as well as X-rays, and they produce afterglows that can be observed at optical and radio energies.
Swift, the Fermi telescope and other spacecraft detect an average of about one GRB each day. As to why this type of GRB hasn’t been detected before, Levan explained this new type appears to be difficult to find because of how long they last.
“Gamma ray telescopes usually detect a quick spike, and you look for a burst — at how many gamma rays come from the sky,” Levan told Universe Today. “But these new GRBs put out energy over a long period of time, over 10,000 seconds instead of the usual 100 seconds. Because it is spread out, it is harder to spot, and only since Swift launched do we have the ability to build up images of GBSs across the sky. To detect this new kind, you have to add up all the light over a long period of time.”
Levan is an astronomer at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England.
He added that these long-lasting GRBs were likely more common in the Universe’s past.
Traditionally, astronomers have recognized two types of GRBs: short and long, based on the duration of the gamma-ray signal. Short bursts last two seconds or less and are thought to represent a merger of compact objects in a binary system, with the most likely suspects being neutron stars and black holes. Long GRBs may last anywhere from several seconds to several minutes, with typical durations falling between 20 and 50 seconds. These events are thought to be associated with the collapse of a star many times the Sun’s mass and the resulting birth of a new black hole.
“It’s a very random process and every GRB looks very different,” said Levan during the briefing. “They all have a range of durations and a range of energies. It will take much bigger sample to see if this new type have more complexities than regular gamma rays bursts.”
All GRBs give rise to powerful jets that propel matter at nearly the speed of light in opposite directions. As they interact with matter in and around the star, the jets produce a spike of high-energy light.
Gendre and his colleagues made a detailed study of GRB 111209A, which erupted on Dec. 9, 2011, using gamma-ray data from the Konus instrument on NASA’s Wind spacecraft, X-ray observations from Swift and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton satellite, and optical data from the TAROT robotic observatory in La Silla, Chile. The 7-hour burst is by far the longest-duration GRB ever recorded.
Another event, GRB 101225A, exploded on December 25, 2010 and produced high-energy emission for at least two hours. Subsequently nicknamed the “Christmas burst,” the event’s distance was unknown, which led two teams to arrive at radically different physical interpretations. One group concluded the blast was caused by an asteroid or comet falling onto a neutron star within our own galaxy. Another team determined that the burst was the outcome of a merger event in an exotic binary system located some 3.5 billion light-years away.
“We now know that the Christmas burst occurred much farther off, more than halfway across the observable universe, and was consequently far more powerful than these researchers imagined,” said Levan.
Using the Gemini North Telescope in Hawaii, Levan and his team obtained a spectrum of the faint galaxy that hosted the Christmas burst. This enabled the scientists to identify emission lines of oxygen and hydrogen and determine how much these lines were displaced to lower energies compared to their appearance in a laboratory. This difference, known to astronomers as a redshift, places the burst some 7 billion light-years away.
Levan’s team also examined 111209A and the more recent burst 121027A, which exploded on Oct. 27, 2012. All show similar X-ray, ultraviolet and optical emission and all arose from the central regions of compact galaxies that were actively forming stars. The astronomers have concluded that all three GRBs constitute a new kind of GRB, which they are calling “ultra-long” bursts.
“Ultra-long GRBs arise from very large stars,” said Levan, “perhaps as big as the orbit of Jupiter. Because the material falling onto the black hole from the edge of the star has further to fall it takes longer to get there. Because it takes longer to get there, it powers the jet for a longer time, giving it time to break out of the star.”
Levan said that Wolf-Rayet stars best fit the description. “They are born with more than 25 times the Sun’s mass, but they burn so hot that they drive away their deep, outermost layer of hydrogen as an outflow we call a stellar wind,” he said. Stripping away the star’s atmosphere leaves an object massive enough to form a black hole but small enough for the particle jets to drill all the way through in times typical of long GRBs
John Graham and Andrew Fruchter, both astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, provided details that these blue supergiant contain relatively modest amounts of elements heavier than helium, which astronomers call metals. This fits an apparent puzzle piece, that these ultra-long GRBs seem to have a strong intrinsic preference for low metallicity environments that contain just trace amounts of elements other than hydrogen and helium.
“High metalicity long duration GRBs do exist but are rare,” said Graham. “They occur at about 1/25th the rate (per unit of star formation) of the low metallicity events. This is good news for us here on Earth, as the likelihood of this type of GRB going off in our own galaxy is far less than previously thought.”
The astronomers discussed their findings Tuesday at the 2013 Huntsville Gamma-ray Burst Symposium in Nashville, Tenn., a meeting sponsored in part by the University of Alabama at Huntsville and NASA’s Swift and Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope missions. Gendre’s findings appear in the March 20 edition of The Astrophysical Journal.
Caption: Artist’s impression of ESA’s orbiting gamma-ray observatory Integral. Image credit: ESA
Integral, ESA’s International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory launched ten years ago this week. This is a good time to look back at some of the highlights of the mission’s first decade and forward to its future, to study at the details of the most sensitive, accurate, and advanced gamma-ray observatory ever launched. But the mission has also had some recent exciting research of a supernova remnant.
Integral is a truly international mission with the participation of all member states of ESA and United States, Russia, the Czech Republic, and Poland. It launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan on October 17th 2002. It was the first space observatory to simultaneously observe objects in gamma rays, X-rays, and visible light. Gamma rays from space can only be detected above Earth’s atmosphere so Integral circles the Earth in a highly elliptical orbit once every three days, spending most of its time at an altitude over 60 000 kilometres – well outside the Earth’s radiation belts, to avoid interference from background radiation effects. It can detect radiation from events far away and from the processes that shape the Universe. Its principal targets are gamma-ray bursts, supernova explosions, and regions in the Universe thought to contain black holes.
5 metres high and more than 4 tonnes in weight Integral has two main parts. The service module is the lower part of the satellite which contains all spacecraft subsystems, required to support the mission: the satellite systems, including solar power generation, power conditioning and control, data handling, telecommunications and thermal, attitude and orbit control. The payload module is mounted on the service module and carries the scientific instruments. It weighs 2 tonnes, making it the heaviest ever placed in orbit by ESA, due to detectors’ large area needed to capture sparse and penetrating gamma rays and to shield the detectors from background radiation in order to make them sensitive. There are two main instruments detecting gamma rays. An imager producing some of the sharpest gamma-ray images and a spectrometer that gauges gamma-ray energies very precisely. Two other instruments, an X-ray monitor and an optical camera, help to identify the gamma-ray sources.
During its extended ten year mission Integral has has charted in extensive detail the central region of our Milky Way, the Galactic Bulge, rich in variable high-energy X-ray and gamma-ray sources. The spacecraft has mapped, for the first time, the entire sky at the specific energy produced by the annihilation of electrons with their positron anti-particles. According to the gamma-ray emission seen by Integral, some 15 million trillion trillion trillion pairs of electrons and positrons are being annihilated every second near the Galactic Centre, that is over six thousand times the luminosity of our Sun.
A black-hole binary, Cygnus X-1, is currently in the process of ripping a companion star to pieces and gorging on its gas. Studying this extremely hot matter just a millisecond before it plunges into the jaws of the black hole, Integral has discovered that some of it might be escaping along structured magnetic field lines. By studying the alignment of the waves of high-energy radiation originating from the Crab Nebula, Integral found that the radiation is strongly aligned with the rotation axis of the pulsar. This implies that a significant fraction of the particles generating the intense radiation must originate from an extremely organised structure very close to the pulsar, perhaps even directly from the powerful jets beaming out from the spinning stellar core.
Just today ESA reported that Integral has made the first direct detection of radioactive titanium associated with supernova remnant 1987A. Supernova 1987A, located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, was close enough to be seen by the naked eye in February 1987, when its light first reached Earth. Supernovae can shine as brightly as entire galaxies for a brief time due to the enormous amount of energy released in the explosion, but after the initial flash has faded, the total luminosity comes from the natural decay of radioactive elements produced in the explosion. The radioactive decay might have been powering the glowing remnant around Supernova 1987A for the last 20 years.
During the peak of the explosion elements from oxygen to calcium were detected, which represent the outer layers of the ejecta. Soon after, signatures of the material from the inner layers could be seen in the radioactive decay of nickel-56 to cobalt-56, and its subsequent decay to iron-56. Now, after more than 1000 hours of observation by Integral, high-energy X-rays from radioactive titanium-44 in supernova remnant 1987A have been detected for the first time. It is estimated that the total mass of titanium-44 produced just after the core collapse of SN1987A’s progenitor star amounted to 0.03% of the mass of our own Sun. This is close to the upper limit of theoretical predictions and nearly twice the amount seen in supernova remnant Cas A, the only other remnant where titanium-44 has been detected. It is thought both Cas A and SN1987A may be exceptional cases
Christoph Winkler, ESA’s Integral Project Scientist says “Future science with Integral might include the characterisation of high-energy radiation from a supernova explosion within our Milky Way, an event that is long overdue.”
Find out more about Integral here
and about Integral’s study of Supernova 1987A here
What would a gamma-ray burst sound like? No one really knows, but members of the team that work with the Fermi Large Area Telescope (LAT) have translated gamma-ray measurements into musical notes and have created a “song” from the photons from one of the most energetic of these powerful explosions, GRB 080916C which occurred in September of 2008.
“In translating the gamma-ray measurements into musical notes we assigned the photons to be “played” by different instruments (harp, cello, or piano) based on the probabilities that they came from the burst,” the team wrote in the Fermi blog. “By converting gamma rays into musical notes, we have a new way of representing the data and listening to the universe.” Continue reading “A Gamma-Ray Burst as Music”
When it comes to high-energy sources, no one knows them better than NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. Taking a portrait of the entire sky every 240 minutes, the program is continually renewing and updating its sources and once a year the scientists harvest the data. These annual gatherings are then re-worked with new tools to produce an ever-deeper look into the Universe around us.
Fermi is famous for its analysis of steady gamma-ray sources, numerous transient events, the dreaded GRB and even flares from the Sun. Its all-sky map absolutely bristles with the energy that’s out there and earlier this year a second catalog of objects was released to eager public eyes. An astounding 1,873 objects were detected by the satellite’s Large Area Telescope (LAT) and this high energy form of light is turning some heads.
“More than half of these sources are active galaxies, whose massive black holes are responsible for the gamma-ray emissions that the LAT detects,” said Gino Tosti, an astrophysicist at the University of Perugia in Italy and currently a visiting scientist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California.
One of the scientists who led the new compilation, Tosti presented a paper on the catalog at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society’s High Energy Astrophysics Division in Newport, R.I. “What is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of our new catalog is the large number of sources not associated with objects detected at any other wavelength,” he noted.
If we were to look at Fermi’s gathering experience as a harvest, we’d see two major components – crops and mystery. Add to that a bushel of pulsars, a basket of supernova remnants and a handful of other things, like galaxies and globular clusters. For Fermi farmers, harvesting new types of gamma-ray-emitting objects that are from “unassociated sources” would account for about 31% of the cash crop. However, the brave little Fermi LAT is producing results from some highly unusual sources. Mystery growth? Think this way… If it’s a light source, then it has a spectrum. When it comes to gamma rays, they’re seen at different energies. “At some energy, the spectra of many objects display what astronomers call a spectral break, that is, a greater-than-expected drop-off in the number of gamma rays seen at increasing energies.” Let’s take a look at two…
Within our galaxy is 2FGL J0359.5+5410. Right now, scientists just don’t understand what it is… only that it’s located in the constellation Camelopardalis. Since it appears about midplane, we’re just assuming it belongs to the Milky Way. From its spectrum, it might be a pulsar – but one without a pulse. Or how about 2FGL J1305.0+1152? It also resides along the midplane and smack dab in the middle of galaxy country – Virgo. Even after two years, Fermi can’t tease out any more details. It doesn’t even have a spectral break!
NASA’s Swift, Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-ray Observatory have teamed up to study one of the most puzzling cosmic blasts yet observed. More than a week later, high-energy radiation continues to brighten and fade from its location.
Astronomers say they have never seen anything this bright, long-lasting and variable before. Usually, gamma-ray bursts mark the destruction of a massive star, but flaring emission from these events never lasts more than a few hours.
Although research is ongoing, astronomers say that the unusual blast likely arose when a star wandered too close to its galaxy’s central black hole. Intense tidal forces tore the star apart, and the infalling gas continues to stream toward the hole. According to this model, the spinning black hole formed an outflowing jet along its rotational axis. A powerful blast of X- and gamma rays is seen if this jet is pointed in our direction.
On March 28, Swift’s Burst Alert Telescope discovered the source in the constellation Draco when it erupted with the first in a series of powerful X-ray blasts. The satellite determined a position for the explosion, now cataloged as gamma-ray burst (GRB) 110328A, and informed astronomers worldwide.
As dozens of telescopes turned to study the spot, astronomers quickly noticed that a small, distant galaxy appeared very near the Swift position. A deep image taken by Hubble on April 4 pinpoints the source of the explosion at the center of this galaxy, which lies 3.8 billion light-years away.
That same day, astronomers used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to make a four-hour-long exposure of the puzzling source. The image, which locates the object 10 times more precisely than Swift can, shows that it lies at the center of the galaxy Hubble imaged.
“We know of objects in our own galaxy that can produce repeated bursts, but they are thousands to millions of times less powerful than the bursts we are seeing now. This is truly extraordinary,” said Andrew Fruchter at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
“We have been eagerly awaiting the Hubble observation,” said Neil Gehrels, the lead scientist for Swift at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “The fact that the explosion occurred in the center of a galaxy tells us it is most likely associated with a massive black hole. This solves a key question about the mysterious event.”
Most galaxies, including our own, contain central black holes with millions of times the sun’s mass; those in the largest galaxies can be a thousand times larger. The disrupted star probably succumbed to a black hole less massive than the Milky Way’s, which has a mass four million times that of our sun
Astronomers previously have detected stars disrupted by supermassive black holes, but none have shown the X-ray brightness and variability seen in GRB 110328A. The source has repeatedly flared. Since April 3, for example, it has brightened by more than five times.
Scientists think that the X-rays may be coming from matter moving near the speed of light in a particle jet that forms as the star’s gas falls toward the black hole.
“The best explanation at the moment is that we happen to be looking down the barrel of this jet,” said Andrew Levan at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, who led the Chandra observations. “When we look straight down these jets, a brightness boost lets us view details we might otherwise miss.”
This brightness increase, which is called relativistic beaming, occurs when matter moving close to the speed of light is viewed nearly head on.
Astronomers plan additional Hubble observations to see if the galaxy’s core changes brightness.
Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs) are among the most energetic phenomena astronomers regularly observe. These events are triggered by massive explosions and a large amount of the energy if focused into narrow beams that sweep across the universe. These beams are so tightly concentrated that they can be seen across the visible universe and allow astronomers to probe the universe’s history. If such an event happened in our galaxy and we stood in the path of the beam, the effects would be pronounced and may lead to large extinctions. Yet one of the most energetic GRBs on record (GRB 080607) was shrouded in cloud of gas and dust dimming the blast by a factor of 20 – 200, depending on the wavelength. Despite this strong veil, the GRB was still bright enough to be detected by small optical telescopes for over an hour. So what can this hidden monster tell astronomers about ancient galaxies and GRBs in general?
GRB 080607 was discovered on June 6, 2008 by the Swift satellite. Since GRBs are short lived events, searches for them are automated and upon detection, the Swift satellite immediately oriented itself towards the source. Other GRB hunting satellites quickly joined in and ground based observatories, including ROTSE-III and Keck made observations as well. This large collection of instruments allowed astronomers, led by D. A. Perley of UC Berkley, to develop a strong understanding of not just the GRB, but also the obscuring gas. Given that the host galaxy lies at a distance of over 12 billion light years, this has provided a unique probe into the nature of the environment of such distant galaxies.
One of the most surprising features was unusually strong absorption near 2175 °A. Although such absorption has been noticed in other galaxies, it has been rare in galaxies at such large cosmological distances. In the local universe, this feature seems to be most common in dynamically stable galaxies but tends to be “absent in more disturbed locations such as the SMC, nearby starburst galaxies” as well as some regions of the Milky Way which more turbulence is present. The team uses this feature to imply that the host galaxy was stable as well. Although this feature is familiar in nearby galaxies, observing it in this case makes it the furthest known example of this phenomenon. The precise cause of this feature is not yet known, although other studies have indicated “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and graphite” are possible suspects.
Earlier studies of this event have shown other novel spectral features. A paper by Sheffer et al. notes that the spectrum also revealed molecular hydrogen. Again, such a feature is common in the local universe and many other galaxies, but never before has such an observation been made linked to a galaxy in which a GRB has occurred. Molecular hydrogen (as well as other molecular compounds) become disassociated at high temperatures like the ones in galaxies containing large amounts of star formation that would produce regions with large stars capable of triggering GRBs. With observations of one molecule in hand, this lead Sheffer’s team to suspect that there might be large amounts of other molecules, such as carbon monoxide (CO). This too was detected making yet another first for the odd environment of a GRB host.
This unusual environment may help to explain a class of GRBs known as “subluminous optical bursts” or “dark bursts” in which the optical component of the burst (especially the afterglow) is less bright than would be predicted by comparison to more traditional GRBs.
A record-breaking gamma ray burst from beyond the Milky Way temporarily blinded the X-ray eye on NASA’s Swift space observatory on June 21, 2010. The X-rays traveled through space for 5-billion years before slamming into and overwhelming the space-based telescope. “This gamma-ray burst is by far the brightest light source ever seen in X-ray wavelengths at cosmological distances,” said David Burrows, senior scientist and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University and the lead scientist for Swift’s X-ray Telescope (XRT).
A gamma-ray burst is a violent eruption of energy from the explosion of a massive star morphing into a new black hole. This mega burst, named GRB 100621A, is the brightest X-ray source that Swift has detected since the observatory began X-ray observation in early 2005.
Although Swift satellite was designed specifically to study gamma-ray bursts, the instrument was not designed to handle an X-ray blast this bright. “The intensity of these X-rays was unexpected and unprecedented” said Neil Gehrels, Swift’s principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Just when we were beginning to think that we had seen everything that gamma-ray bursts could throw at us, this burst came along to challenge our assumptions about how powerful their X-ray emissions can be.”.
What is a supernova? Well, “nova” means “new star”, and “super” means “really big”, like supermarket, so a supernova is a really bright new star. That’s where the word comes from, but today it has a rather more precise meaning, namely a once-off variable star which has a peak brightness similar to, or greater than, that of a typical galaxy.
Supernovae aren’t new stars in the sense that they were not stars before they became supernovae; the progenitor – what the star was before it went supernova – of a supernova is just a star (or a pair of stars), albeit an unusual one.
From what we see – the rise of the intensity of light (and electromagnetic radiation in general) to a peak, its decline; the lines which show up in the spectra (and the ones which don’t), etc – we can classify supernovae into several different types. There are two main types, called Type I and Type II. The difference between them is that Type I supernovae have no lines of hydrogen in their spectra, while Type II ones do.
Centuries of work by astronomers and physicists have given us just two kinds of progenitors: white dwarfs and massive (>8 sols) stars; and just two key physical mechanisms: nuclear detonation and core collapse.
Core collapse supernovae happen when a massive star tries to fuse iron in its core … bad move, because fusing iron requires energy (rather than liberates it), and the core suddenly collapses due to its gravity. A lot of interesting physics happens when such a core collapses, but it either results in a neutron star or a black hole, and a vast amount of energy is produced (most of it in the form of neutrinos!). These supernovae can be of any type, except a sub-type of Type I (called Ia). They also produce the long gamma-ray bursts (GRB).
Detonation is when a white dwarf star undergoes almost simultaneous fusion of carbon or oxygen throughout its entire body (it can do this because a white dwarf has the same temperature throughout, unlike an ordinary star, because its electrons are degenerate). There are at least two ways such a detonation can be triggered: steady accumulation of hydrogen transferred from a close binary companion, or a collision or merger with a neutron star or another white dwarf. These supernovae are all Type Ia.
One other kind of supernova: when two neutron stars merge, or a ~solar mass black hole and a neutron star merge – as a result of loss of orbital energy due to gravitational wave radiation – an intense burst of gamma-rays results, along with a fireball and an afterglow (as the fireball cools). We see such an event as a short GRB, but if we were unlikely enough to be close to such a stellar death, we’d certainly see it as a spectacular supernova!