A New Species of Type Ia Supernova?

Artist’s conception of a binary star system that produces recurrent novae, and ultimately, the supernova PTF 11kx. (Credit: Romano Corradi and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias)

Although they have been used as the “standard candles” of cosmic distance measurement for decades, Type Ia supernovae can result from different kinds of star systems, according to recent observations conducted by the Palomar Transient Factory team at California’s Berkeley Lab.


Judging distances across intergalactic space from here on Earth isn’t easy. Within the Milky Way — and even nearby galaxies — the light emitted by regularly pulsating stars (called Cepheid variables) can be used to determine how far away a region in space is. Outside of our own local group of galaxies, however, individual stars can’t be resolved, and so in order to figure out how far away distant galaxies are astronomers have learned to use the light from much brighter objects: Type Ia supernovae, which can flare up with a brilliance equivalent to 5 billion Suns.

Type Ia supernovae are created from a special pairing of two stars orbiting each other: one super-dense white dwarf drawing material in from a companion until a critical mass — about 40% more massive than the Sun — is reached. The overpacked white dwarf suddenly undergoes a rapid series of thermonuclear reactions, exploding in an incredibly bright outburst of material and energy… a beacon visible across the Universe.

Because the energy and luminance of Type Ia supernovae have been found to be so consistently alike, distance can be gauged by their apparent brightness as seen from Earth. The dimmer one is when observed, the farther away its galaxy is. Based on this seemingly universal similarity it’s been thought that these supernovae must be created under very similar situations… especially since none have been directly observed — until now.

An international team of astronomers working on the Palomar Transient Factory collaborative survey have observed for the first time a Type Ia supernova-creating star pair — called a progenitor system — located in the constellation Lynx. Named PTF 11kx, the system, estimated to be some 600 million light-years away, contains a white dwarf and a red giant star, a coupling that has not been seen in previous (although indirect) observations.

“It’s a total surprise to find that thermonuclear supernovae, which all seem so similar, come from different kinds of stars,” says Andy Howell, a staff scientist at the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) and a co-author on the paper, published in the August 24 issue of Science. “How could these events look so similar, if they had different origins?”

The initial observations of PTF 11kx were made possible by a robotic telescope mounted on the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope at California’s Palomar Observatory as well as a high-speed data pipeline provided by the NSF, NASA and Department of Energy. The supernova was identified on January 16, 2011 and supported by subsequent spectrography data from Lick Observatory, followed up by immediate “emergency” observations with the Keck Telescope in Hawaii.

“We basically called up a fellow UC observer and interrupted their observations in order to get time critical spectra,” said Peter Nugent, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a co-author on the paper.

The Keck observations showed the PTF 11kx post-supernova system to contain slow-moving clouds of gas and dust that couldn’t have come from the recent supernova event. Instead, the clouds — which registered high in calcium in the Lick spectrographic data — must have come from a previous nova event in which the white dwarf briefly ignited and blew off an outer layer of its atmosphere. This expanding cloud was then seen to be slowing down, likely due to the stellar wind from a companion red giant.

(What’s the difference between a nova and a supernova? Read NASA’s STEREO Spots a New Nova)

Eventually the decelerating nova cloud was impacted by the rapidly-moving outburst from the supernova, evidenced by a sudden burst in the calcium signal which had gradually diminished in the two months since the January event. This calcium burst was, in effect, the supernova hitting the nova and causing it to “light up”.

The observations of PTF 11kx show that Type Ia supernova can occur in progenitor systems where the white dwarf has undergone nova eruptions, possibly repeatedly — a scenario that many astronomers had previously thought couldn’t happen. This could even mean that PTF 11kx is an entirely new species of Type Ia supernova, and while previously unseen and rare, not unique.

Which means our cosmic “standard candles” may need to get their wicks trimmed.

“We know that Type 1a supernovae vary slightly from galaxy to galaxy, and we’ve been calibrating for that, but this PTF 11kx observation is providing the first explanation of why this happens,” Nugent said. “This discovery gives us an opportunity to refine and improve the accuracy of our cosmic measurements.”

Source: Berkeley Lab news center

Inset images: PTF 11kx observation (BJ Fulton, Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network) / The 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope dome at Palomar Observatory. Video: Romano Corradi and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias

Shiny New Supernova Spotted in Nearby Galaxy

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Literally an event of stellar proportions, a new Type Ia supernova has been identified in a spiral galaxy 25 million light-years away! Spotted by Caltech’s Palomar Transit Factory project, this supernova, categorized as PTF11kly, is located 58″.6 west and 270″.7 south of the center of M101. It was first seen yesterday, August 24, 2011.

According to AAVSO Special Notice #250 P. Nugent et al. reported in Astronomical Telegram #3581 that a possible Type-Ia supernova has been discovered by the Palomar Transient Factory shortly after eruption in the galaxy M101 and has been designated “PTF11kly”. The object is currently at a magnitude of 17.2, but may well rise by several magnitudes. The object is well placed within M101 for good photometry, and observations of this potential bright SNIa are strongly encouraged.

There are currently no comparison stars available in VSP for this field; please indicate clearly the comparison stars that you use for photometry when reporting observations to AAVSO. Please retain your images and/or photometry for recalibration when comparison star magnitudes are available.

Need coordinates? The (J2000) coordinates reported for the object are RA: 14:03:05.81 , Dec: +54:16:25.4. Messier 101 is located in the constellation of Ursa Major at RA: 14h 03m 12.6s Dec: +54 20′ 57″

Charts for PTF11kly may be plotted with AAVSO VSP. You should select the DSS option when plotting, as the galaxy will not appear on standard charts. This object has been assigned the name “PTF11kly” for use with AAVSO VSP and WebObs; please use this name when reporting observations until it is conclusively classified as a supernova and a proper SN name is assigned.

Image of M101 and PTF11kly by Joseph Brimacombe.

Type Ia supernovae are the result of a binary pair of mismatched stars, the smaller, denser one feeding on material drawn off its larger companion until it can no longer take in any more material. It then explodes in a catastrophic event that outshines the brightness of its entire galaxy! Astronomers believe that Type Ia supernovae occur in pretty much the same fashion every time and thus, being visible across vast distances, have become invaluable benchmarks for measuring distance in the Universe and gauging its rate of expansion.

The fact that this supernova was spotted literally within a day of its occurrence – visibly speaking, of course, since M101 is 25 million light-years away and thus 25 million years in our past – will be extremely handy for astronomers who will have the opportunity to study the event from beginning to end and learn more about some of the less-understood processes involved in Type Ia events.

“We caught this supernova earlier than we’ve ever discovered a supernova of this type. On Tuesday, it wasn’t there. Then, on Wednesday, boom! There it was – caught within hours of the explosion. As soon as I saw the discovery image I knew we were onto something big.”

– Andy Howell, staff scientist at Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope

It’s a big Universe and there are a lot of stars and therefore a lot of supernovae, but getting a chance to study one occurring so recently in a galaxy so relatively close to our own is something that is getting many astronomers very excited.

So, get those CCD camera out and best of luck!

Keep up with the latest news on PTF11kly on the rochesterastronomy.org site, and check out Phil Plait’s informative article on his BadAstronomy blog. Also read the press release from the University of California here.

Tammy Plotner also contributed to this article.

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Jason Major is a graphic designer, photo enthusiast and space blogger. Visit his website Lights in the Dark and follow him on Twitter @JPMajor and on Facebook for more astronomy news and images!