On June 17th 2018, the ATLAS (Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System) survey’s twin telescopes spotted something extraordinarily bright in the sky. The source was 200 million light years away in the constellation Hercules. The object was given the name AT2018cow or “The Cow.” The Cow flared up quickly, and then just as quickly it was gone.
Apparently not all supernovas work. And when they fail, they leave behind a half-chewed remnant, still burning from leftover heat but otherwise lifeless: a zombie star. Astronomers aren’t sure how many of these should-be-dead creatures lurk in the interstellar depths, but with recent simulations scientists are making a list of their telltale signatures so that future surveys can potentially track them down.
For many years, scientists have been studying how supernovae could affect life on Earth. Supernovae are extremely powerful events, and depending on how close they are to Earth, they could have consequences ranging from the cataclysmic to the inconsequential. But now, the scientists behind a new paper say they have specific evidence linking one or more supernova to an extinction event 2.6 million years ago.
About 2.6 million years ago, one or more supernovae exploded about 50 parsecs, or about 160 light years, away from Earth. At that same time, there was also an extinction event on Earth, called the Pliocene marine megafauna extinction. Up to a third of the large marine species on Earth were wiped out at the time, most of them living in shallow coastal waters.
“This time, it’s different. We have evidence of nearby events at a specific time.” – Dr. Adrian Melott, University of Kansas.
When stars reach the end of their lifespan, many undergo gravitational collapse and explode into a supernova, In some cases, they collapse to become black holes and release a tremendous amount of energy in a short amount of time. These are what is known as gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), and they are one of the most powerful events in the known Universe.
Recently, an international team of astronomers was able to capture an image of a newly-discovered triple star system surrounded by a “pinwheel” of dust. This system, nicknamed “Apep”, is located roughly 8,000 light years from Earth and destined to become a long-duration GRB. In addition, it is the first of its kind to be discovered in our galaxy.
For almost a century, astronomers have been studying supernovae with great interest. These miraculous events are what take place when a star enters the final phase of its lifespan and collapses, or is stripped by a companion star of its outer layers to the point where it undergoes core collapse. In both cases, this event usually leads to a massive release of material a few times the mass of our Sun.
However, an international team of scientists recently witnessed a supernova that was a surprisingly faint and brief. Their observations indicate that the supernova was caused by an unseen companion, likely a neutron star that stripped its companion of material, causing it to collapse and go supernova. This is therefore the first time that scientists have witnessed the birth of a compact neutron star binary system.
Eta Carinae, a double star system located 7,500 light years away in the constellation Carina, has a combined luminosity of more than 5 million Suns – making it one of the brightest stars in the Milky Way galaxy. But 170 years ago, between 1837 and 1858, this star erupted in what appeared to be a massive supernova, temporarily making it the second brightest star in the sky.
Strangely, this blast was not enough to obliterate the star system, which left astronomers wondering what could account for the massive eruption. Thanks to new data, which was the result of some “forensic astronomy” (where leftover light from the explosion was examined after it reflected off of interstellar dust) a team of astronomers now think they have an explanation for what happened.
In their first study, the team indicates how they studied the “light echoes” produced by the explosion, which were reflected off of interstellar dust and are just now visible from Earth. From this, they observed that the eruption resulted in material expanding at speeds that were up to 20 times faster than with any previously-observed supernova.
In the second study, the team studied the evolution of the echo’s light curve, which revealed that it experienced spikes before 1845, then plateaued until 1858 before steadily declining over the next decade. Basically, the observed velocities and light curve were consistent with the blast wave of a supernova explosion rather than the relatively slow and gentle winds expected from massive stars before they die.
The light echoes were first detected in images obtained in 2003 by telescopes at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. For the sake of their study, the team consulted spectroscopic data from the Magellan telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory and the Gemini South Observatory, both located in Chile. This allowed the team to measure the light and determine the ejecta’s expansion speeds – more than 32 million km/h (20 million mph).
Based on this data, the team hypothesized that the eruption may have been triggered by a prolonged battle between three stars, which destroyed one star and left the other two in a binary system. This battle may have culminated with a violent explosion when Eta Carinae devoured one of its two companions, sending more than 10 Solar masses into space. This ejected mass created the gigantic bipolar nebula (aka. “the Homunculus Nebula”) which is seen today.
“We see these really high velocities in a star that seems to have had a powerful explosion, but somehow the star survived. The easiest way to do this is with a shock wave that exits the star and accelerates material to very high speeds.”
In this scenario, Eta Carinae started out as a trinary system, with two massive stars orbiting close to each other and the third orbiting further away. When the most massive of the binary neared the end of its life, it began to expand and then transfer much of its material onto its slightly smaller companion. This caused the smaller star to accumulate just enough energy to cause it to eject its outer layers, but not enough to completely annihilate it.
The companion star would have then grown to become about 100 times the mass of our Sun and extremely bright. The other star, now weighing only 30 Solar masses, would have been stripped of its hydrogen layers, exposing its hot helium core – which represent an advanced stage of evolution in the lives of massive stars. As Armin Rest – a researcher from the STSI, The John Hopkins University and a co-author on the paper – explained:
“From stellar evolution, there’s a pretty firm understanding that more massive stars live their lives more quickly and less massive stars have longer lifetimes. So the hot companion star seems to be further along in its evolution, even though it is now a much less massive star than the one it is orbiting. That doesn’t make sense without a transfer of mass.”
This transfer of mass would have altered the gravitational balance of the system, causing the helium-core star to move farther away from its now-massive companion and eventually travel so far that it would interact with the outermost third star. This would cause the third star to move towards the massive star and eventually merge with it, producing an outflow of material.
Initially, the merger caused ejecta that expanded relatively slowly, but as the two stars finally joined together, they produced an explosive event that blasted material off 100 times faster. This material caught up to the slow ejecta, pushing it forward and heating the material until it glowed. This glowing material was the main light source that was viewed by astronomers 170 years ago.
In the end, the smaller helium-core star settled into an elliptical orbit around around its massive counterpart, passing through the star’s outer layers every 5.5 years and generating X-ray shock waves. According to Smith, while this explanation cannot account for everything observed in Eta Carinae, it does explain both the brightening and the fact that the star remains:
“The reason why we suggest that members of a crazy triple system interact with each other is because this is the best explanation for how the present-day companion quickly lost its outer layers before its more massive sibling.”
These studies have provided new clues as to the mystery of how Eta Carinae appeared to explode in a massive supernova, but left behind a massive star and nebula. In addition, a better understanding of the physics behind the Eta Carinae explosion could help astronomers to learn more about the complicated interactions that govern binary and multiple star systems – which are critical to our understanding of the evolution and death of massive stars.
A supernova is one of the most impressive natural phenomena in the Universe. Unfortunately, such events are often brief and transient, temporarily becoming as bright as an entire galaxy and then fading away. But given what these bright explosions – which occur when a star reaches the end of its life cycle – can teach us about the Universe, scientists are naturally very interested in studying them.
The team was led by Miika Pursiainen, a PhD researcher from the University of Southampton. For the sake of their study, the team relied on data from the 4-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). This telescope is part of the Dark Energy Survey, a global effort to map hundreds of millions of galaxies and thousands of supernovae in to find patterns int he cosmic structure that will reveal the nature of dark energy.
As Pursiainen commented in a recent Southampton news release:
“The DES-SN survey is there to help us understand dark energy, itself entirely unexplained. That survey then also reveals many more unexplained transients than seen before. If nothing else, our work confirms that astrophysics and cosmology are still sciences with a lot of unanswered questions!”
As noted, these events were very peculiar in that they had a similar maximum brightness compared to different types of supernove, they were visible for far less time. Whereas supernova typically last for several months or more, these transient supernovae were visible for about a week to a month. The events also appeared to be very hot, with temperatures ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 °C (18,000 to 54,000 °F).
They also vary considerably in size, ranging from being several times the distance between the Earth and the Sun – 150 million km, 93 million mi (or 1 AU) – to hundreds of times. However, they also appear to be expanding and cooling over time, which is what is expected from an event like a supernova. Because of this, there is much debate about the origin of these transient supernovae.
A possible explanation is that these stars shed a lot of material before they exploded, and that this could have shrouded them in matter. This material may then have been heated by the supernovae themselves, causing it to rise to very high temperatures. This would mean that in these cases, the team was seeing the hot clouds rather than the exploding stars themselves.
This certainly would explain the observations made by Pursiainen and his team, though a lot more data will be needed to confirm this. In the future, the team hopes to examine more transients and see how often they occur compared to more common supernovae. The study of this powerful and mysterious phenomenon will also benefit from the use of next-generation telescopes.
When the James Webb Space Telescope is deployed in 2020, it will study the most distant supernovae in the Universe. This information, as well as studies performed by ground-based observatories, is expected to not only shed light on the life cycle of stars and dark energy, but also on the formation of black holes and gravitational waves.
Astronomers have discovered the most distant supernova yet, at a distance of 10.5 billion light years from Earth. The supernova, named DES16C2nm, is a cataclysmic explosion that signaled the end of a massive star some 10.5 billion years ago. Only now is the light reaching us. The team of astronomers behind the discovery have published their results in a new paper available at arXiv.
“…sometimes you just have to go out and look up to find something amazing.” – Dr. Bob Nichol, University of Portsmouth.
The supernova was discovered by astronomers involved with the Dark Energy Survey (DES), a collaboration of astronomers in different countries. The DES’s job is to map several hundred million galaxies, to help us find out more about dark energy. Dark Energy is the mysterious force that we think is causing the accelerated expansion of the Universe.
DES16C2nm was first detected in August 2016. Its distance and extreme brightness were confirmed in October that year with three of our most powerful telescopes – the Very Large Telescope and the Magellan Telescope in Chile, and the Keck Observatory, in Hawaii.
DES16C2nm is what’s known as a superluminous supernova (SLSN), a type of supernova only discovered 10 years ago. SLSNs are the rarest—and the brightest—type of supernova that we know of. After the supernova exploded, it left behind a neutron star, which is the densest type of object in the universe. The extreme brightness of SLSNs, which can be 100 times brighter than other supernovae, are thought to be caused by material falling into the neutron star.
“It’s thrilling to be part of the survey that has discovered the oldest known supernova.” – Dr Mathew Smith, lead author, University of Southampton
Lead author of the study Dr Mathew Smith, of the University of Southampton, said: “It’s thrilling to be part of the survey that has discovered the oldest known supernova. DES16C2nm is extremely distant, extremely bright, and extremely rare – not the sort of thing you stumble across every day as an astronomer.”
Dr. Smith went on to say that not only is the discovery exciting just for being so distant, ancient, and rare. It’s also providing insights into the cause of SLSNs: “The ultraviolet light from SLSN informs us of the amount of metal produced in the explosion and the temperature of the explosion itself, both of which are key to understanding what causes and drives these cosmic explosions.”
“Now we know how to find these objects at even greater distances, we are actively looking for more of them as part of the Dark Energy Survey.” – Co-author Mark Sullivan, University of Southampton.
Now that the international team behind the Dark Energy Survey has found one of the SLSNs, they want to find more. Co-author Mark Sullivan, also of the University of Southampton, said: “Finding more distant events, to determine the variety and sheer number of these events, is the next step. Now we know how to find these objects at even greater distances, we are actively looking for more of them as part of the Dark Energy Survey.”
The instrument used by DES is the newly constructed Dark Energy Camera (DECam), which is mounted on the Victor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in the Chilean Andes. DECam is an extremely sensitive 570-megapixel digital camera designed and built just for the Dark Energy Survey.
The Dark Energy Survey involves more than 400 scientists from over 40 international institutions. It began in 2013, and will wrap up its five year mission sometime in 2018. The DES is using 525 nights of observation to carry out a deep, wide-area survey to record information from 300 million galaxies that are billions of light-years from Earth. DES is designed to help us answer a burning question.
According to Einstein’s General Relativity Theory, gravity should be causing the expansion of the universe to slow down. And we thought it was, until 1998 when astronomers studying distant supernovae found that the opposite is true. For some reason, the expansion is speeding up. There are really only two ways of explaining this. Either the theory of General Relativity needs to be replaced, or a large portion of the universe—about 70%—consists of something exotic that we’re calling Dark Energy. And this Dark Energy exerts a force opposite to the attractive force exerted by “normal” matter, causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate.
“…sometimes you just have to go out and look up to find something amazing.” – Dr. Bob Nichol, University of Portsmouth.
To help answer this question, the DES is imaging 5,000 square degrees of the southern sky in five optical filters to obtain detailed information about each of the 300 million galaxies. A small amount of the survey time is also used to observe smaller patches of sky once a week or so, to discover and study thousands of supernovae and other astrophysical transients. And this is how DES16C2nm was discovered.
Study co-author Bob Nichol, Professor of Astrophysics and Director of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at the University of Portsmouth, commented: “Such supernovae were not thought of when we started DES over a decade ago. Such discoveries show the importance of empirical science; sometimes you just have to go out and look up to find something amazing.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, astronomers from Caltech announced their third detection of gravitational waves from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO.
As with the previous two detections, astronomers have determined that the waves were generated when two intermediate-mass black holes slammed into each other, sending out ripples of distorted spacetime.
One black hole had 31.2 times the mass of the Sun, while the other had 19.4 solar masses. The two spiraled inward towards each other, until they merged into a single black hole with 48.7 solar masses. And if you do the math, twice the mass of the Sun was converted into gravitational waves as the black holes merged.
These gravitational waves traveled outward from the colossal collision at the speed of light, stretching and compressing spacetime like a tsunami wave crossing the ocean until they reached Earth, located about 2.9 billion light-years away.
The waves swept past each of the two LIGO facilities, located in different parts of the United States, stretching the length of carefully calibrated laser measurements. And from this, researchers were able to detect the direction, distance and strength of the original merger.
Seriously, if this isn’t one of the coolest things you’ve ever heard, I’m clearly easily impressed.
Now that the third detection has been made, I think it’s safe to say we’re entering a brand new field of gravitational astronomy. In the coming decades, astronomers will use gravitational waves to peer into regions they could never see before.
Being able to perceive gravitational waves is like getting a whole new sense. It’s like having eyes and then suddenly getting the ability to perceive sound.
This whole new science will take decades to unlock, and we’re just getting started.
As Einstein predicted, any mass moving through space generates ripples in spacetime. When you’re just walking along, you’re actually generating tiny ripples. If you can detect these ripples, you can work backwards to figure out what size of mass made the ripples, what direction it was moving, etc.
Even in places that you couldn’t see in any other way. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Black holes, obviously, are the low hanging fruit. When they’re not actively feeding, they’re completely invisible, only detectable by how they gravitational attract objects or bend light from objects passing behind them.
But seen in gravitational waves, they’re like ships moving across the ocean, leaving ripples of distorted spacetime behind them.
With our current capabilities through LIGO, astronomers can only detect the most massive objects moving at a significant portion of the speed of light. A regular black hole merger doesn’t do the trick – there’s not enough mass. Even a supermassive black hole merger isn’t detectable yet because these mergers seem to happen too slowly.
This is why all the detections so far have been intermediate-mass black holes with dozens of times the mass of our Sun. And we can only detect them at the moment that they’re merging together, when they’re generating the most intense gravitational waves.
If we can boost the sensitivity of our gravitational wave detectors, we should be able to spot mergers of less and more massive black holes.
But merging isn’t the only thing they do. Black holes are born when stars with many more times the mass of our Sun collapse in on themselves and explode as supernovae. Some stars, we’ve now learned just implode as black holes, never generating the supernovae, so this process happens entirely hidden from us.
Is there a singularity at the center of a black hole event horizon, or is there something there, some kind of object smaller than a neutron star, but bigger than an infinitely small point? As black holes merge together, we could see beyond the event horizon with gravitational waves, mapping out the invisible region within to get a sense of what’s going on down there.
We want to know about even less massive objects like neutron stars, which can also form from a supernova explosion. These neutron stars can orbit one another and merge generating some of the most powerful explosions in the Universe: gamma ray bursts. But do neutron stars have surface features? Different densities? Could we detect a wobble in the gravitational waves in the last moments before a merger?
And not everything needs to merge. Sensitive gravitational wave detectors could sense binary objects with a large imbalance, like a black hole or neutron star orbiting around a main sequence star. We could detect future mergers by their gravitational waves.
Are gravitational waves a momentary distortion of spacetime, or do they leave some kind of permanent dent on the Universe that we could trace back? Will we see echoes of gravity from gravitational waves reflecting and refracting through the fabric of the cosmos?
Perhaps the greatest challenge will be using gravitational waves to see beyond the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. This region shows us the Universe 380,000 years after the Big Bang, when everything was cool enough for light to move freely through the Universe.
But there was mass there, before that moment. Moving, merging mass that would have generated gravitational waves. As we explained in a previous article, astronomers are working to find the imprint of these gravitational waves on the Cosmic Microwave Background, like an echo, or a shadow. Perhaps there’s a deeper Cosmic Gravitational Background Radiation out there, one which will let us see right to the beginning of time, just moments after the Big Bang.
And as always, there will be the surprises. The discoveries in this new field that nobody ever saw coming. The “that’s funny” moments that take researchers down into whole new fields of discovery, and new insights into how the Universe works.
The LIGO project was begun back in 1994, and the first iteration operated from 2002 to 2012 without a single gravitational wave detection. It was clear that the facility wasn’t sensitive enough, so researchers went back and made massive improvements.
In 2008, they started improving the facility, and in 2015, Advanced LIGO came online with much more sensitivity. With the increased capabilities, Advanced LIGO made its first discovery in 2016, and now two more discoveries have been added.
LIGO can currently only detect the general hemisphere of the sky where a gravitational wave was emitted. And so, LIGO’s next improvement will be to add another facility in India, called INDIGO. In addition to improving the sensitivity of LIGO, this will give astronomers three observations of each event, to precisely detect the origin of the gravitational waves. Then visual astronomers could do follow up observations, to map the event to anything in other wavelengths.
A European experiment known as Virgo has been operating for a few years as well, agreeing to collaborate with the LIGO team if any detections are made. So far, the Virgo experiment hasn’t found anything, but it’s being upgraded with 10 times the sensitivity, which should be fully operational by 2018.
A Japanese experiment called the Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector, or KAGRA, will come online in 2018 as well, and be able to contribute to the observations. It should be capable of detecting binary neutron star mergers out to nearly a billion light-years away.
Just with visual astronomy, there are a set of next generation supergravitational wave telescopes in the works, which should come online in the next few decades.
The Europeans are building the Einstein Telescope, which will have detection arms 10 km long, compared to 4 km for LIGO. That’s like, 6 more km.
There’s the European Space Agency’s space-based Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA, which could launch in 2030. This will consist of a fleet of 3 spacecraft which will maintain a precise distance of 2.5 million km from each other. Compare that to the Earth-based detection distances, and you can see why the future of observations will come from space.
And that last idea, looking right back to the beginning of time could be a possibility with the Big Bang Observer mission, which will have a fleet of 12 spacecraft flying in formation. This is still all in the proposal stage, so no concrete date for if or when they’ll actually fly.
Gravitational wave astronomy is one of the most exciting fields of astronomy. This entirely new sense is pushing out our understanding of the cosmos in entirely new directions, allowing us to see regions we could never even imagine exploring before. I can’t wait to see what happens next.