Possible Bright Supernova Lights Up Spiral Galaxy M61

I sat straight up in my seat when I learned of the discovery of a possible new supernova in the bright Virgo galaxy M61. Since bright usually means close, this newly exploding star may soon become visible in smaller telescopes. It was discovered at magnitude +13.6 on October 29th by Koichi Itagaki of Japan, a prolific hunter of supernovae with 94 discoveries or co-discoveries to his credit. Itagaki used a CCD camera and 19.6-inch (0.50-m) reflector to spy the new star within one of the galaxy’s prominent spiral arms. Comparison with earlier photos showed no star at the position. Itagaki also nabbed not one but two earlier supernovae in M61 in December 2008 and November 2006.

The possible supernova in the bright galaxy M61 in Virgo is located 40" east and 7" south of the galaxy's core at right ascension (RA) 12 h 22', declination (Dec) +4º 28' It's currently magnitude +13.4 and visible in the morning sky before dawn in 8-inch and larger telescopes. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Martino Nicolini, Nick Howes
The possible supernova in the bright galaxy M61 in Virgo is located 40″ east and 7″ south of the galaxy’s core at right ascension (RA) 12 h 22′, declination (Dec) +4º 28′. It’s currently magnitude +13.4 and visible in the morning sky before dawn in 8-inch and larger telescopes. Credit: Ernesto Guido, Martino Nicolini, Nick Howes

Overnight, Ernesto Guido and crew used a remote telescope in New Mexico to confirm the new object. We’re still waiting for a spectrum to be absolutely sure this is the real deal and also to determine what type of explosion occurred. In the meantime, it may well brighten in the coming mornings.

M61 is a beautiful barred spiral galaxy located about 55 million light years from Earth in the constellation Virgo. It's one of the few galaxies to show spiral structure in smaller telescopes. Credit: Hunter Wilson
M61 is a beautiful barred spiral galaxy located about 55 million light years from Earth in the constellation Virgo. It’s one of the few galaxies to show spiral structure in smaller telescopes. Credit: Hunter Wilson

Supernovae are divided into two broad categories – Type Ia and Type II. In a Type Ia event,  a planet-sized white dwarf star in close orbit around a normal star siphons off matter from its companion which builds up on the surface of the dwarf until it reaches critical mass at which point the core ignites and consumes itself and the star in one titanic nuclear fusion reaction.  A cataclysmic explosion ensues as the star self-destructs in blaze of glory.

Evolution of a Type Ia supernova. Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Feild
Evolution of a Type Ia supernova. Credit: NASA/ESA/A. Feild

Type Ia explosions can become 5 billion times brighter than the Sun – the reason we can see them across so many light years – and eject matter into space at 5,000 – 20,000 km/second. Type II events mark the end of the life of a massive supergiant star. As these behemoths age, they burn by fusing heavier and heavier elements in their cores from hydrogen to carbon to silicon and finally, iron-nickel. Iron is inert and can’t be cooked or fused to create more energy. The star’s internal heat source, which has been staving back the force of gravity all these millions of years, shuts down.  Gravity takes hold with a vengeance, the star quickly collapses then rebounds in a titanic explosion. Ka-boom! 

Artist's impression of a Type II supernova explosion which involves the destruction of a massive supergiant star. Credit: ESO
Artist’s impression of a Type II supernova explosion which involves the destruction of a massive supergiant star. Credit: ESO

Like the Type Ia event, a Type II supernova grows to fantastic brilliance. Besides a legacy of radiant light, star debris, the creation of heavy elements like gold and lead, a Type II event will sometimes leave behind a tiny, city-sized, rapidly-spinning neutron star – the much compressed core of the original star – or even a black hole. So yes, life can continue for a giant star after a supernova event. But like seeing a former classmate at your 40th high school reunion, you’d hardly recognize it.

The "Y" or cup of Virgo rises into good view shortly before the start of dawn or about 2 hours before sunrise. This map shows the sky facing east around 6 a.m. local time (DST) and 5 a.m. starting Sunday when Daylight Saving Time is done. Source: Stellarium
The “Y” or “cup” of Virgo rises into good view shortly before the start of dawn or about 2 hours before sunrise. This map shows the sky facing east around 6 a.m. local time (DST) tomorrow October 31 and 5 a.m. standard time starting Sunday when Daylight Saving Time ends. Source: Stellarium

Are you itching to see this new supernova for yourself? Here are a couple maps to help you find it. M61 is located in the middle of the “Y” of Virgo not far from the familiar bright double star Gamma Virginis.  From many locations, the galaxy climbs to 15-20° altitude in the east-southeast sky just before the start of dawn, just high enough for a good view. Once you find the galaxy, look for a small “star” superimposed on its eastern spiral arm as shown in the photo at the top of this article.

In this close up view, stars are shown to magnitude +7.5. M61 is right between 16 and 17 Virginis (magnitudes 5 and 6.5 respectively). Source: Stellarium
In this close up view, stars are shown to magnitude +7.5. M61 is right between 16 and 17 Virginis (magnitudes 5 and 6.5 respectively). Click to enlarge.  Source: Stellarium

I’ll be out there with my scope watching and will report back once it’s established what type of supernova happens to be blowing up in our eyepieces. More information about the new object can be found anytime at David Bishop’s Latest Supernovae site. Good luck, clear skies!

** Update Nov. 1 : M61’s supernova now has a name and type! SN 2014dt is a Type Ia (exploding white dwarf) with some peculiarities in its spectrum. It’s also little brighter at magnitude +13.2.

Astronomers Find Evidence of a Strange Type of Star

One has never been spotted for sure in the wild jungle of strange stellar objects out there, but astronomers now think they have finally found a theoretical cosmic curiosity: a Thorne-Zytkow Object, or TZO, hiding in the neighboring Small Magellanic Cloud. With the outward appearance of garden-variety red supergiants, TZOs are actually two stars in one: a binary pair where a super-dense neutron star has been absorbed into its less dense supergiant parter, and from within it operates its exotic elemental forge.

First theorized in 1975 by physicist Kip Thorne and astronomer Anna Zytkow, TZOs have proven notoriously difficult to find in real life because of their similarity to red supergiants, like the well-known Betelgeuse at the shoulder of Orion. It’s only through detailed spectroscopy that the particular chemical signatures of a TZO can be identified.

Infrared portrait of the Small Magellanic Cloud, made by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope
Portrait of the Small Magellanic Cloud, made by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope

Observations of the red supergiant HV 2112 in the Small Magellanic Cloud*, a dwarf galaxy located a mere 200,000 light-years away, have revealed these signatures — unusually high concentrations of heavy elements like molybdenum, rubidium, and lithium.

While it’s true that these elements are created inside stars — we are all star-stuff, like Carl Sagan said — they aren’t found in quantity within the atmospheres of lone supergiants. Only by absorbing a much hotter star — such as a neutron star left over from the explosive death of a more massive partner — is the production of such elements presumed to be possible.

“Studying these objects is exciting because it represents a completely new model of how stellar interiors can work,”said Emily Levesque, team leader from the University of Colorado Boulder and lead author on the paper. “In these interiors we also have a new way of producing heavy elements in our universe.”

Definitive detection of a TZO would provide direct evidence for a completely new model of stellar interiors, as well as confirm a theoretically predicted fate for massive star binary systems and the existence of nucleosynthesis environments that offer a new channel for heavy-element and lithium production in our universe.
– E.M. Levesque et al., Discovery of a Thorne-Zytkow object candidate in the Small Magellanic Cloud

One of the original proposers of TZOs, Dr. Anna Zytkow, is glad to see her work resulting in new discoveries.

“I am extremely happy that observational confirmation of our theoretical prediction has started to emerge,” Zytkow said. “Since Kip Thorne and I proposed our models of stars with neutron cores, people were not able to disprove our work. If theory is sound, experimental confirmation shows up sooner or later. So it was a matter of identification of a promising group of stars, getting telescope time and proceeding with the project.”

The findings were first announced in January at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society. The paper has now been accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters, and is co-authored by Philip Massey, of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona; Anna Zytkow of the University of Cambridge in the U.K.; and Nidia Morrell of the Carnegie Observatories in La Serena, Chile. Read the team’s paper here.

Source: University of Colorado, Boulder. Illustration by ‘Digital Drew.’
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*In the paper the team notes that it’s not yet confirmed that HV 2112 is part of the SMC and could be associated with our own galaxy. If so it would rule out it being a TZO, but would still require an explanation of its observed spectra.

New Supernova Pops in Bright Galaxy M106 in the ‘Hunting Dogs’

A supergiant star exploded 23.5 million years ago in one of the largest and brightest nearby galaxies. This spring we finally got the news. In April, the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope (KAIT) as part of the Lick Observatory Supernova Search, photographed a faint “new star” very close to the bright core of M106, a 9th magnitude galaxy in Canes Venatici the Hunting Dogs. 

The core of a red or blue supergiant moments before exploding as a supernova looks like an onion with multiple elements "burning" through the fusion process to create the heat to stay the force of gravity. Fusion stops at iron. With no energy pouring from the central core to keep the other elements cooking, the star collapses and the rebounding shock wave tears it apart.
The inner core of a red or blue supergiant moments before exploding as a supernova looks like an onion with multiple elements “burning” through the fusion process to create the heat and pressure that stays the force of gravity. Fusion stops at iron. With no energy pouring from the central core to keep the other elements cooking, the star collapses and the rebounding shock wave tears it apart.

A study of its light curve indicated a Type II supernova – the signature of a rare supergiant star ending its life in the most violent way imaginable. A typical supergiant star is 8 to 12 times more massive than the sun and burns at a much hotter temperature, rapidly using up its available fuel supply as it cooks lighter elements like hydrogen and helium into heavier elements within its core. Supergiant lifetimes are measured in the millions of years (10-100 million) compared to the frugal sun’s 11 billion years. When silicon fuses to create iron, a supergiant reaches the end of the line – iron can’t be fused or cooked into another heavier element – and its internal “furnace” shuts down. Gravity takes over and the whole works collapses in upon itself at speeds up to 45,000 miles per second.

When the outer layers reached the core, they crushed it into a dense ball of subatomic particles and send a powerful shock wave back towards the surface that rips the star to shreds. A supernova is born!  Newly-minted radioactive forms of elements like nickel and cobalt are created by the tremendous pressure and heat of the explosion. Their rapid decay into stable forms releases energy that contributes to the supernova’s light.

This Hubble Space Telescope image shows how spectacular M106 truly is. Its spiral arms are dotted with dark lanes of dust, young star clusters rich with hot, blue stars and tufts of pink nebulosity swaddling newborn stars. The galaxy is the 106th entry in the 18th century French astronomer Charles Messier's famous catalog. Credit: NASA / ESA
This Hubble Space Telescope image shows how spectacular M106 truly is. Dark filaments of dust are silhouetted against billions of unresolved suns. Young star clusters rich with hot, blue stars and tufts of pink nebulosity swaddling newborn stars ornament the galaxy’s spiral arms. A supermassive black hole rumbles at the heart of the galaxy. M106 is the 106th entry in Charles Messier’s famous catalog created in the 18th century. It’s located 23.5 million light years away. Credit: NASA / ESA

For two weeks, the supernova in M106 remained pinned at around magnitude +15, too faint to tease out from the galaxy’s bright, compact nucleus for most amateur telescopes. But a photograph taken by Gianluca Masi and team on May 21 indicate it may have brightened somewhat. They estimated its red magnitude – how bright it appears when photographed through a red filter – at +13.5. A spectrum made of the object reveals the ruby emission of hydrogen light, the telltale signature of a Type II supernova event.

At magnitude +9, M106 visible in almost any telescope and easy to find. Start just above the Bowl of the Big Dipper which stands high in the northwestern sky at nightfall in late May. The 5th magnitude stars 5 CVn (5 Canes Venatici) and 3 CVn lie near the galaxy. Star hop from the Bowl to these stars and then over to M106. Stars plotted to mag. +8. Click to enlarge. Stellarium
At magnitude +9, M106 visible in almost any telescope and easy to find. Start just above the Bowl of the Big Dipper which stands high in the northwestern sky at nightfall in late May. The 5th magnitude stars 5 CVn (5 Canes Venatici) and 3 CVn lie near the galaxy. Star hop from the Bowl to these stars and then over to M106. Stars plotted to mag. +8. Click to enlarge. Stellarium

Visually the supernova will appear fainter because our eyes are more sensitive to light in the middle of the rainbow spectrum (green-yellow) than the reds and purple that bracket either side. I made a tentative observation of the object last night using a 15-inch (37-cm) telescope and hope to see it more clearly tonight from a darker sky. We’ll keep you updated on our new visitor’s brightness as more observations and photographs come in. You can also check Dave Bishop’s Latest Supernovae site for more information and current images.

Even if the supernova never gets bright enough to see in your telescope, stop by M106 anyway. It’s big, easy to find and shows lots of interesting structure. Spanning 80,000 light years in diameter, M106 would be faintly visible with the naked eye were it as close as the Andromeda Galaxy. In smaller scopes the galaxy’s bright nucleus stands out in a mottled haze of pearly light; 8-inch(20-cm) and larger instrument reveal the two most prominent spiral arms. M106 is often passed up for the nearby more famous Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). Next time, take the detour. You won’t be disappointed.

 

Hidden Companion Responsible for Surprising Disk Around Strange Supergiant Star

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For several years, astronomers have been trying to get a good look at a peculiar supergiant star that is surrounded by a disk of gas and dust. The star, HD 62623, is one of the very few known supergiant stars to have such a disk. These disks are generally only associated with smaller, young stars, as supergiants have strong stellar winds that would blow away any surrounding plasma and debris. Now, using long-baseline stellar interferometry with the “Amber” instrument at ESO’s Very Large Telescope interferometer, a team of astronomers were able to capture, for the first time, a 3-D view of this strange star and its surrounding environment, which revealed a hidden secret: a companion star is likely responsible for the surrounding disk.

“Thanks to our interferometric observations with Amber we could synthetize a 3-D image of HD 62623 as seen through a virtual 130 m-diameter telescope”, says Florentin Millour, leading author of the study, from Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur. “The resolution is an order of magnitude higher compared with the world’s largest optical telescopes of 8-10 m diameter.”

HD 62623 is an exotic, hot, supergiant star. Supergiants are the most massive stars out there, ranging between 10 to 70 solar masses, and can range in brightness from 30,000 to hundreds of thousands of times the output of our Sun. They have very short lifespans, living from 30 million down to just a few hundred thousand years. Supergiants seem to always detonate as Type II supernovae at the end of their lives.

“Our new 3D image locates the dust-forming region around HD 62623 very precisely, and it provides evidence for the rotation of the gas around the central star,” said co-author Anthony Meilland from Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy. “This rotation is found to be Keplerian, the same way the Solar system planets rotate around the Sun.”

The companion star, although not seen directly because its light couldn’t be resolved among the brightness of HD62623, was detected by a central cavity between the gas disk and HD 62623. The companion is thought to be approximately the mass of our Sun, and its presence would explain the exotic characteristics of HD 62623, which has many similar characteristics to a monster among the old stars within our Galaxy, Eta Carinae.

HD 62623 is located in the constellation Cygnus near another bright supergiant, Deneb of the summer triangle. Deneb however, like most other supergiants, has no surrounding disk.

Four domes of the 1.8 m Auxiliary Telescopes (AT), utilized for the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI). ESO, Cerro Paranal, Chile. Image: F. Millour, OCA, Nice, France.

The images obtained with the Amber instrument combines spatial and velocity information, showing not only the shape of the close environment of HD 62623, but also its kinematics or motion. Up to now, the necessary kinematics information was missing in such images.

The astronomers were able to “disentangle” the dust and gas emission in the HD 62623 circumstellar disc, and measure the dusty disc inner rim. They also constrained the inclination angle and the position angle of the major-axis of the disc.

The new 3D imaging technique used by the team is equivalent to integral-field spectroscopy, but gives access to a 15 times larger angular resolution or capacity to detect fine details in the images. “With these new capacities, the VLTI will be able to provide a better comprehension of many sky targets, too small to be resolved by the largest telescopes,” said Millour. “We could aim at young stellar disks or jets, or even the central regions of active galaxies.”

Read the team’s paper: “Imaging the spinning gas and dust in the disc around the supergiant A[e] star HD62623,” Florentin Millour, Anthony Meilland, Olivier Chesneau, Philippe Stee, Samer Kanaan, Romain Petrov, Denis Mourard, Stefan Kraus, 2011, Astronomy & Astrophysics, Vol. 526, A107.

Source: Max Planck Institute for Astronomy

Rigel

Rigel is the brightest star in the constellation of Orion; despite that, its formal name (one of them anyway) is Beta Orionis (Alpha Orionis – Betelgeuse – is a variable star, as is Rigel; Betelgeuse is sometimes the brighter, but most of the time is the fainter).

Rigel is a blue supergiant (spectral class B8I), the brightest of its kind in the sky. It’s also a multiple star system … the primary is the blue supergiant which totally dominates the observed light, and the secondary (Rigel B) is itself a close (spectroscopic) binary (B, and C, are both of B spectral class too … but are main sequence stars). HIPPARCOS data puts Rigel at a distance of ~850 light-years, but with a large uncertainty (GAIA will nail down its distance much more accurately).

Being a blue star, Rigel emits most of its light in the UV; if it is 850 light-years distant, its luminosity is approximately 85,000 sols, its radius ~75 sols (or ~0.35 au; if it were where the Sun is, Mercury would be almost inside it), its mass about 18 sols, and it is only approximately 10 million years old. It is likely to have a non-burning helium core (i.e. it is in its hydrogen shell-burning phase), and on its way to becoming a red supergiant (like Betelgeuse), and after that a supernova.

A couple of degrees away, on the sky, is the Witch-Head Nebula (IC 2118), which is a reflection nebula. And which star’s light is it reflecting? You guessed it, Rigel’s! Now as IC 2118 is about 40 light-years from Rigel, it demonstrates well just how much light Rigel is emitting.

Rigel may be part of the Orion OB1 association, if it were kicked out at around its birth (it’s too far, today, from the other stars in the association to be a member unless it is moving away at rather a fast clip).

Some of the Universe Today articles which feature Rigel include Rigel Passes Behind Saturn, Astrophoto: The Witch Head Nebula by Richard Payne, and IYA 2009 – Brian Sheen Reports on “Canoe Africa”.

Two Astronomy Cast episodes which relate to Rigel are The Life of Other Stars (in particular, the life of stars much more massive than the Sun), and Stellar Populations (in particular, the range of types of stars born from the same natal nebula).

Betelgeuse

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Betelgeuse is the ninth brightest star in the sky, and the second brightest in the constellation of Orion (it’s the red one, on the opposite side of the Belt from Rigel, which is the blue one, and the brightest).

With a mass of some 20 sols (= the mass of 20 Suns), Betelgeuse is evolving rapidly, even though it’s only a few million years old. It’s now a red supergiant, burning helium in a shell, and (very likely) burning carbon in another shell (closer to the nucleus), and (possibly) oxygen, silicon, and sulfur in other nested shells (like Russian dolls).

Betelgeuse is enormous … if it were where the Sun is, all four inner planets would be inside it! Because it’s so big, and is only approx 640 light-years away, Betelgeuse appears to about 1/20 of an arcsecond in size; this made it an ideal target for optical interferometry. And so it was that in 1920 Michelson and Pease used the 100″ Mt Wilson telescope, with a 20 m interferometer attached to the front, to measure Betelgeuse’s diameter.

The Hubble Space Telescope imaged Betelgeuse directly, in 1995, in the ultraviolet (see above). Why the UV? Because ground-based telescopes can’t make such observations, and because the Hubble’s resolution is greatest in the UV.

Since the 1920s Betelgeuse has been observed, from the ground, by many different optical interferometers, at many wavelengths. Its diameter varies somewhat, as does its brightness (Herschel is perhaps the first astronomer to describe its variability, in 1836). It also has ‘hotspots’, which are ginormous.

Betelgeuse is also shedding mass in giant plumes that stretch to over six times its diameter. Although these plumes will certainly cause it to ‘slim down’, they won’t be enough to stop its core turning to iron (when the silicon there is exhausted, if it hasn’t already done so). Not long afterwards, perhaps within the next thousand years or so, Betelgeuse will go supernova … making it the brightest and most spectacular supernova visible from Earth in perhaps a million years. Fortunately, because we are not looking directly down on its pole, when Betelgeuse does go bang, we won’t be fried by a gamma ray burst (GRB) which may occur (while a core collapse supernova can cause one kind of GRB, it is not yet known if all such supernovae produce GRBs; in any case, such a GRB is one of a pair of jets which rip through the poles of the dying star).

AAVSO has an excellent article on Betelgeuse, and COAST’s (Cambridge Optical Aperture Synthesis Telescope) webpage on its observations of Betelgeuse gives a good summary of one interferometric technique (and some great images too!).

Universe Today has many stories on just about every aspect of Betelgeuse, from its varying size (The Curious Case of the Shrinking Star), the bubbles it’s blowing and its plumes (Closest Ever Look at Betelgeuse Reveals its Fiery Secret), featured in What’s Up This Week, to the bow shock it creates in the interstellar medium (The Bow Shock of Betelgeuse Revealed).

Astronomy Cast’s The Life of Other Stars is a whole episode on the evolution of stars other than the Sun.

References:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betelgeuse
http://www.solstation.com/x-objects/betelgeuse.htm