Astronomers Find The Most Distant Supernova Ever: 10.5 Billion Light-Years Away

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.

This image from 2015 shows the same area of sky before DES16C2nm exploded. Image: Mat Smith and DES collaboration.

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 DECam in operation at its home in the Chilean Andes. The extremely sensitive, 570 megapixel camera is mounted on the Victor M. Blanco 4-meter Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Image: DES/CTIO

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.”

New Estimate Puts the Supernova Killzone Within 50 Light-Years of Earth

Composite Spitzer, Hubble, and Chandra image of supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. A new study shows that a supernova as far away as 50 light years could have devastating effects on life on Earth. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI/CXC/SAO)

There are a lot of ways that life on Earth could come to an end: an asteroid strike, global climate catastrophe, or nuclear war are among them. But perhaps the most haunting would be death by supernova, because there’s absolutely nothing we could do about it. We’d be sitting ducks.

New research suggest that a supernova’s kill zone is bigger than we thought; about 25 light years bigger, to be exact.

Iron in the Ocean

In 2016, researchers confirmed that Earth has been hit with the effects from multiple supernovae. The presence of iron 60 in the seabed confirms it. Iron 60 is an isotope of iron produced in supernova explosions, and it was found in fossilized bacteria in sediments on the ocean floor. Those iron 60 remnants suggest that two supernovae exploded near our solar system, one between 6.5 to 8.7 million years ago, and another as recently as 2 million years ago.

Iron 60 is extremely rare here on Earth because it has a short half life of 2.6 million years. Any of the iron 60 created at the time of Earth’s formation would have decayed into something else by now. So when researchers found the iron 60 on the ocean floor, they reasoned that it must have another source, and that logical source is a supernova.

This evidence was the smoking gun for the idea that Earth has been struck by supernovae. But the questions it begs are, what effect did that supernova have on life on Earth? And how far away do we have to be from a supernova to be safe?

“…we can look for events in the history of the Earth that might be connected to them (supernova events).” – Dr. Adrian Melott, Astrophysicist, University of Kansas.

In a press release from the University of Kansas, astrophysicist Adrian Melott talked about recent research into supernovae and the effects they can have on Earth. “This research essentially proves that certain events happened in the not-too-distant past,” said Melott, a KU professor of physics and astronomy. “They make it clear approximately when they happened and how far away they were. Knowing that, we can consider what the effect may have been with definite numbers. Then we can look for events in the history of the Earth that might be connected to them.”

Earlier work suggested that a supernova kill zone is about 25-30 light years. If a supernova exploded that close to Earth, it would trigger a mass extinction. Bye-bye humanity. But new work suggests that 25 light years is an under-estimation, and that a supernova 50 light years away would be powerful enough to cause a mass extinction.

Supernovae: A Force Driving Evolution?

But extinction is just one effect a supernova could have on Earth. Supernovae can have other effects, and they might not all be negative. It’s possible that a supernovae about 2.6 million years ago even drove human evolution.

“Our local research group is working on figuring out what the effects were likely to have been,” Melott said. “We really don’t know. The events weren’t close enough to cause a big mass extinction or severe effects, but not so far away that we can ignore them either. We’re trying to decide if we should expect to have seen any effects on the ground on the Earth.”

Melott and his colleagues have written a new paper that focuses on the effects a supernova might have on Earth. In a new paper titled “A SUPERNOVA AT 50 PC: EFFECTS ON THE EARTH’S ATMOSPHERE AND BIOTA”, Melott and a team of researchers tried to shed light on Earth-supernova interactions.

The Local Bubble

There are a number of variables that come into play when trying to determine the effects of a supernova, and one of them is the idea of the Local Bubble. The Local Bubble itself is the result of one or more supernova explosion that occurred as long as 20 million years ago. The Local Bubble is a 300 light year diameter bubble of expanding gas in our arm of the Milky Way galaxy, where our Solar System currently resides. We’ve been travelling through it for the last five to ten million years. Inside this bubble, the magnetic field is weak and disordered.

Melott’s paper focused on the effects that a supernova about 2.6 million years ago would have on Earth in two instances: while both were within the Local Bubble, and while both were outside the Local Bubble.

The disrupted magnetic field inside the Local Bubble can in essence magnify the effects a supernova can have on Earth. It can increase the cosmic rays that reach Earth by a factor of a few hundred. This can increase the ionization in the Earth’s troposphere, which mean that life on Earth would be hit with more radiation.

Outside the Local Bubble, the magnetic field is more ordered, so the effect depends on the orientation of the magnetic field. The ordered magnetic field can either aim more radiation at Earth, or it could in a sense deflect it, much like our magnetosphere does now.

Focusing on the Pleistocene

Melott’s paper looks into the connection between the supernova and the global cooling that took place during the Pleistocene epoch about 2.6 million years ago. There was no mass extinction at that time, but there was an elevated extinction rate.

According to the paper, it’s possible that increased radiation from a supernova could have changed cloud formation, which would help explain a number of things that happened at the beginning of the Pleistocene. There was increased glaciation, increased species extinction, and Africa grew cooler and changed from predominantly forests to semi-arid grasslands.

Cancer and Mutation

As the paper concludes, it is difficult to know exactly what happened to Earth 2.6 million years ago when a supernova exploded in our vicinity. And it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact distance at which life on Earth would be in trouble.

But high levels of radiation from a supernova could increase the cancer rate, which could contribute to extinction. It could also increase the mutation rate, another contributor to extinction. At the highest levels modeled in this study, the radiation could even reach one kilometer deep into the ocean.

There is no real record of increased cancer in the fossil record, so this study is hampered in that sense. But overall, it’s a fascinating look at the possible interplay between cosmic events and how we and the rest of life on Earth evolved.

Sources:

Chance Discovery Of A Three Hour Old Supernova

Supernovae are extremely energetic and dynamic events in the universe. The brightest one we’ve ever observed was discovered in 2015 and was as bright as 570 billion Suns. Their luminosity signifies their significance in the cosmos. They produce the heavy elements that make up people and planets, and their shockwaves trigger the formation of the next generation of stars.

There are about 3 supernovae every 100 hundred years in the Milky Way galaxy. Throughout human history, only a handful of supernovae have been observed. The earliest recorded supernova was observed by Chinese astronomers in 185 AD. The most famous supernova is probably SN 1054 (historic supernovae are named for the year they were observed) which created the Crab Nebula. Now, thanks to all of our telescopes and observatories, observing supernovae is fairly routine.

The supernova that produced the Crab Nebula was detected by naked-eye observers around the world in 1054 A.D. This composite image uses data from NASA’s Great Observatories, Chandra, Hubble, and Spitzer, to show that a superdense neutron star is energizing the expanding Nebula by spewing out magnetic fields and a blizzard of extremely high-energy particles. The Chandra X-ray image is shown in light blue, the Hubble Space Telescope optical images are in green and dark blue, and the Spitzer Space Telescope’s infrared image is in red. The size of the X-ray image is smaller than the others because ultrahigh-energy X-ray emitting electrons radiate away their energy more quickly than the lower-energy electrons emitting optical and infrared light. The neutron star is the bright white dot in the center of the image.
The supernova that produced the Crab Nebula was detected by naked-eye observers around the world in 1054 A.D. This composite image uses data from NASA’s Great Observatories, Chandra, Hubble, and Spitzer.

But one thing astronomers have never observed is the very early stages of a supernova. That changed in 2013 when, by chance, the automated Intermediate Palomar Transient Factory (IPTF) caught sight of a supernova only 3 hours old.

Spotting a supernovae in its first few hours is extremely important, because we can quickly point other ‘scopes at it and gather data about the SN’s progenitor star. In this case, according to a paper published at Nature Physics, follow-up observations revealed a surprise: SN 2013fs was surrounded by circumstellar material (CSM) that it ejected in the year prior to the supernova event. The CSM was ejected at a high rate of approximately 10 -³ solar masses per year. According to the paper, this kind of instability might be common among supernovae.

SN 2013fs was a red super-giant. Astronomers didn’t think that those types of stars ejected material prior to going supernova. But follow up observations with other telescopes showed the supernova explosion moving through a cloud of material previously ejected by a star. What this means for our understanding of supernovae isn’t clear yet, but it’s probably a game changer.

Catching the 3-hour-old SN 2013fs was an extremely lucky event. The IPTF is a fully-automated wide-field survey of the sky. It’s a system of 11 CCD’s installed on a telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California. It takes 60 second exposures at frequencies from 5 days apart to 90 seconds apart. This is what allowed it to capture SN 2013fs in its early stages.

The 48 inch telescope at the Palomar Observatory. The IPTF is installed on this telescope. Image: IPTF/Palomar Observatory

Our understanding of supernovae is a mixture of theory and observed data. We know a lot about how they collapse, why they collapse, and what types of supernovae there are. But this is our first data point of a SN in its early hours.

SN 2013fs is 160 million light years away in a spiral-arm galaxy called NGC7610. It’s a type II supernova, meaning that it’s at least 8 times as massive as our Sun, but not more than 50 times as massive. Type II supernovae are mostly observed in the spiral arms of galaxies.

A supernova is the end state of some of the stars in the universe. But not all stars. Only massive stars can become supernova. Our own Sun is much too small.

Stars are like dynamic balancing acts between two forces: fusion and gravity.

As hydrogen is fused into helium in the center of a star, it causes enormous outward pressure in the form of photons. That is what lights and warms our planet. But stars are, of course, enormously massive. And all that mass is subject to gravity, which pulls the star’s mass inward. So the fusion and the gravity more or less balance each other out. This is called stellar equilibrium, which is the state our Sun is in, and will be in for several billion more years.

But stars don’t last forever, or rather, their hydrogen doesn’t. And once the hydrogen runs out, the star begins to change. In the case of a massive star, it begins to fuse heavier and heavier elements, until it fuses iron and nickel in its core. The fusion of iron and nickel is a natural fusion limit in a star, and once it reaches the iron and nickel fusion stage, fusion stops. We now have a star with an inert core of iron and nickel.

Now that fusion has stopped, stellar equilibrium is broken, and the enormous gravitational pressure of the star’s mass causes a collapse. This rapid collapse causes the core to heat again, which halts the collapse and causes a massive outwards shockwave. The shockwave hits the outer stellar material and blasts it out into space. Voila, a supernova.

The extremely high temperatures of the shockwave have one more important effect. It heats the stellar material outside the core, though very briefly, which allows the fusion of elements heavier than iron. This explains why the extremely heavy elements like uranium are much rarer than lighter elements. Only large enough stars that go supernova can forge the heaviest elements.

In a nutshell, that is a type II supernova, the same type found in 2013 when it was only 3 hours old. How the discovery of the CSM ejected by SN 2013fs will grow our understanding of supernovae is not fully understood.

Supernovae are fairly well-understood events, but their are still many questions surrounding them. Whether these new observations of the very earliest stages of a supernovae will answer some of our questions, or just create more unanswered questions, remains to be seen.

Kepler Catches Early Flash Of An Exploding Star

“Life exists because of supernovae,” said Steve Howell, project scientist for NASA’s Kepler and K2 missions at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “All heavy elements in the universe come from supernova explosions. For example, all the silver, nickel, and copper in the earth and even in our bodies came from the explosive death throes of stars.”

So a glimpse of a supernova explosion is of intense interest to astronomers. It’s a chance to study the creation and dispersal of the life-enabling elements themselves. A greater understanding of supernovae will lead to a greater understanding of the origins of life.

Stars are balancing acts. They are a struggle between the pressure to expand, created by the fusion in the star, and the gravitational urge to collapse, caused by their own enormous mass. When the core of a star runs out of fuel, the star collapses in on itself. Then there is a massive explosion, which we call a supernova. And only very large stars can become supernovae.

The brilliant flashes that accompany supernovae are called shock breakouts. These events last only about 20 minutes, an infinitesimal amount of time for an object that can shine for billions of years. But when Kepler captured two of these events in 2011, it was more than just luck.

Peter Garnavich is an astrophysics professor at the University of Notre Dame. He led an international team that analyzed the light from 500 galaxies, captured every 30 minutes over a period of 3 years by Kepler. They searched about 50 trillion stars, trying to catch one as it died as a supernova. Only a fraction of stars are large enough to explode as supernovae, so the team had their work cut out for them.

“In order to see something that happens on timescales of minutes, like a shock breakout, you want to have a camera continuously monitoring the sky,” said Garnavich. “You don’t know when a supernova is going to go off, and Kepler’s vigilance allowed us to be a witness as the explosion began.”

An artist's concept of a shock breakout. Image: NASA Ames/STScl/G. Bacon
An artist’s concept of a shock breakout. Image: NASA Ames/STScl/G. Bacon

In 2011 Kepler caught two gigantic stars as they died their supernova death. Called KSN 2011a, and KSN 2011d, the two red super-giants were 300 times and 500 times the size of our Sun respectively. 2011a was 700 million light years from Earth, and 2011d was 1.2 billion light years away.

The intriguing part of the two supernovae is the difference between them; one had a visible shock breakout and one did not. This was puzzling, since in other respects, both supernovae behaved much like theory predicted they would. The team thinks that the smaller of the two, KSN 2011a, may have been surrounded by enough gas to mask the shock breakout.

The Kepler spacecraft is well-known for searching for and discovering extrasolar planets. But when some components on board Kepler failed in 2013, the mission was re-cast as the K2 Mission. “While Kepler cracked the door open on observing the development of these spectacular events, K2 will push it wide open, observing dozens more supernovae,” said Tom Barclay, senior research scientist and director of the Kepler and K2 guest observer office at Ames. “These results are a tantalizing preamble to what’s to come from K2!”

(For a brilliant and detailed look at the life-cycle of stars, I recommend “The Life and Death of Stars” by Kenneth R. Lang.)

Is the Universe Dying?

Is our 13.8 billion year old universe actually in its death throes?

Poor Universe, its demise announced right in it’s prime. At only 13.8 billion years old, when you peer across the multiverse it’s barely middle age. And yet, it sadly dwindles here in hospice.

Is it a Galactus infestation? The Unicronabetes? Time to let go, move on and find a new Universe, because this one is all but dead and gone and but a shell of its former self.

The news of imminent demise was recently broadcast in mid 2015. Based on research looking at the light coming from over 200,000 galaxies, they found that the galaxies are putting out half as much light as they were 2 billion years ago. So if our math is right, less light equals more death.

So tell it to me straight, Doctor Spaceman(SPAH-CHEM-AN), how long have we got? Astronomers have known for a long time that the Universe was much more active in the distant past, when everything was closer and denser, and better. Back then, more of it was the primordial hydrogen left over from the Big Bang, supplying galaxies for star formation. Currently, there are only 1 to 3 new stars formed in the Milky Way every year. Which is pretty slow by Milky Way standards.

Not even at the busiest time of star formation, our Sun formed 5 billion years ago. 5 billion years before that, just a short 4 billion after the Big Bang, star formation peaked out. There were 30 times more stars forming then, than we see today.

When stars were formed actually makes a difference. For example, the fact that it took so long for our Sun to form is a good thing. The heavier elements in the Solar System, really anything higher up the periodic table from hydrogen and helium, had to be formed inside other stars. Main sequence stars like our own Sun spew out heavier elements from their solar winds, while supernovae created the heaviest elements in a moment of catastrophic collapse. Astronomers are pretty sure we needed a few generations of stars to build up enough of the heavier elements that life depends on, and probably wouldn’t be here without it.

Even if life did form here on Earth billions of years ago, when the Universe was really cranking, it would wish it was never born. With 30 times as much star formation going on, there would be intense radiation blasting away from all these newly forming stars and their subsequent supernovae detonations. So be glad life formed when it did. Sometimes a little quiet is better.

So, how long has the Universe got? It appears that it’s not going to crash together in the future, it’s just going to keep on expanding, and expanding, forever and ever.

Our eyes would never see the Crab Nebula as this Hubble image shows it. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)
Our eyes would never see the Crab Nebula as this Hubble image shows it. Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)

In a few billion years, star formation will be a fraction of what it is today. In a few trillion, only the longest lived, lowest mass red dwarfs will still be pushing out their feeble light. Then, one by one, galaxies will see their last star flicker and fade away into the darkness. Then there’ll only be dead stars and dead planets, cooling down to the background temperature of the Universe as their galaxies accelerate from one another into the expanding void.

Eventually everything will be black holes, or milling about waiting to be trapped in black holes. And these black holes themselves will take an incomprehensible mighty pile of years to evaporate away to nothing.

So yes, our Universe is dying. Just like in a cheery Sartre play, it started dying the moment it began its existence. According to astronomers, the Universe will never truly die. It’ll just reach a distant future when there’s so little usable energy, it’ll be mostly dead. Dead enough? Dead inside.

As Miracle Max knows, mostly dead is still slightly alive. Who knows what future civilizations will figure out in the googol years between then and now.

Too sad? Let’s wildly speculate on futuristic technologies advanced civilizations will use to outlast the heat death of the Universe or flat out cheat death and re-spark it into a whole new cycle of Universal renewal.

How Do Stars Go Rogue?

Rogue stars are moving so quickly they’re leaving the Milky Way, and never coming back. How in the Universe could this happen?

Stars are built with the lightest elements in the Universe, hydrogen and helium, but they contain an incomprehensible amount of mass. Our Sun is made of 2 x 10^30 kgs of stuff. That’s a 2 followed by 30 zeros. That’s 330,000 times more stuff than the Earth.

You would think it’d be a bit of challenge to throw around something that massive, but there are events in the Universe which are so catastrophic, they can kick a star so hard in the pills that it hits galactic escape velocity.

Rogue, or hypervelocity stars are moving so quickly they’re leaving the Milky Way, and never coming back. They’ve got a one-way ticket to galactic voidsville. The velocity needed depends on the location, you’d need to be traveling close to 500 kilometers per second. That’s more than twice the speed the Solar System is going as it orbits the centre of the Milky Way.

There are a few ways you can generate enough kick to fire a star right out of the park. They tend to be some of the most extreme events and locations in the Universe. Like Supernovae, and their big brothers, gamma ray bursts.

Supernovae occur when a massive star runs out of hydrogen, keeps fusing up the periodic table of elements until it reaches iron. Because iron doesn’t allow it to generate any energy, the star’s gravity collapses it. In a fraction of a second, the star detonates, and anything nearby is incinerated. But what if you happen to be in a binary orbit with a star that suddenly vaporizes in a supernova explosion?

That companion star is flung outward with tremendous velocity, like it was fired from a sling, clocking up to 1,200 km/s. That’s enough velocity to escape the pull of the Milky Way. Huzzah! Onward, to adventure! Ahh, crap… please do not be pointed at the Earth?

This artist’s impression shows the dust and gas around the double star system GG Tauri-A.
This artist’s impression shows the dust and gas around the double star system GG Tauri-A.

Another way to blast a star out of the Milky Way is by flying it too close to Kevin, the supermassive black hole at the heart of the galaxy.

And for the bonus round, astronomers recently discovered stars rocketing away from the galactic core as fast as 900 km/s. It’s believed that these travelers were actually part of a binary system. Their partner was consumed by the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, and the other is whipped out of the galaxy in a gravitational jai halai scoop.

Interestingly, the most common way to get flung out of your galaxy occurs in a galactic collision. Check out this animation of two galaxies banging together. See the spray of stars flung out in long tidal tails? Billions of stars will get ejected when the Milky Way hammers noodle first into Andromeda.

A recent study suggests half the stars in the Universe are rogue stars, with no galaxies of their own. Either kicked out of their host galaxy, or possibly formed from a cloud of hydrogen gas, flying out in the void. They are also particularly dangerous to Carol Danvers.

Considering the enormous mass of a star, it’s pretty amazing that there are events so catastrophic they can kick entire stars right out of our own galaxy.

What do you think life would be like orbiting a hypervelocity star? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

Weekly Space Hangout – March 27, 2015: Dark Matter Galaxy “X” with Dr. Sukanya Chakrabarti

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)
Special Guest: Dr. Sukanya Chakrabarti, Lead Investigator for team that may have discovered Dark Matter Galaxy “X”.

Guests:
Morgan Rehnberg (cosmicchatter.org / @MorganRehnberg )
Dave Dickinson (@astroguyz / www.astroguyz.com)
Brian Koberlein (@briankoberlein)
Continue reading “Weekly Space Hangout – March 27, 2015: Dark Matter Galaxy “X” with Dr. Sukanya Chakrabarti”

How Many Stars Did It Take To Make Us?

You know the quote, we’re made of stardust. Generation after generation of stars created the materials that make us up. How? And how many stars did it take?

Carl Sagan once said, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.” To an average person, this might sound completely bananas. I feel it could easily be adopted into the same dirty realm as “My grandpappy wasn’t no gorilla”.

After all, if my teeth are made of stars, and my toothpaste supplier can be believed, why aren’t they brighter and whiter? If my bones are made of stars, shouldn’t I have this creepy inner glow like the aliens from Cocoon? Does this mean everything I eat is made of stars? And conversely, the waste products of my body then are also made of stars? Shouldn’t all this star business include some cool interstellar powers, like Nova? Also, shouldn’t my face be burning?

When the Big Bang happened, 13.8 billion years ago, the entire Universe was briefly the temperature and pressure of a star. And in this stellar furnace, atoms of hydrogen were fused together to make helium and heavier elements like lithium and a little bit of beryllium.

This all happened between 100 and 300 seconds after the Big Bang, and then the Universe wasn’t star-like enough for fusion to happen any more. It’s like someone set a microwave timer and cooked the heck of the whole business for 5 minutes. DING! Your Universe is done! All the other elements in the Universe, including the carbon in our bodies to the gold in our jewelry were manufactured inside of stars.

But how many stars did it take to make “us”? Main sequence stars, like our own Sun, create elements slowly, but surely within their cores. As we speak, the Sun is relentlessly churning hydrogen into helium. Once when it runs out of hydrogen, it’ll switch to crushing helium into carbon and oxygen. More massive stars keep going up the periodic table, making neon and magnesium, oxygen and silicon. But those elements aren’t in you. Once a regular star gets going, it’ll hang onto its elements forever with its intense gravity. Even after it dies and becomes a white dwarf.

White Dwarf Star
White Dwarf Star

No, something needs to happen to get those elements out. That star needs to explode. The most massive stars, ones with dozens of times the mass of our Sun don’t know when to stop. They just keep on churning more and more massive elements, right on up the periodic table. They keep fusing and fusing until they reach iron in their cores. And as iron is the stellar equivalent of ash, fusion reactions no longer generate energy, and instead require energy. Without the fusion energy pushing against the force of gravity pulling everything inward, the massive star collapses in on itself, creating a neutron star or black hole, or detonating as a supernova.

It’s in this moment, a fraction of a second, when all the heavier elements are created. The gold, platinum, uranium and other rare elements that we find on Earth. All of them were created in supernovae in the past. The materials of everything around you was either created during the Big Bang or during a supernova detonation. Only supernovae “explode” and spread their material into the surrounding nebula. Our Solar System formed within a nebula of hydrogen that was enriched by multiple supernovae. Everything around you was pretty much made in a supernova.

These images taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope show the dust and gas concentrations around a supernova. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
These images taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope show the dust and gas concentrations around a supernova. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

So how many? How many times has this cycle been repeated? We don’t know. Lots. There were the original stars that formed shortly after the Big Bang, and then successive generations of massive stars that formed in various nebulae. Astronomers are pretty sure it was a least 3 generations of supernovae, but there’s no way to know exactly.

Carl Sagan said you’re made of star-stuff. But actually you’re made up mostly of Big Bang stuff and generations of supernova stuff. Tasty tasty supernova stuff.

What’s your favorite supernova remnant? Tell us in the comments below.

Gamma Ray Bursts Limit The Habitability of Certain Galaxies, Says Study

Gamma ray bursts (GRBs) are some of the brightest, most dramatic events in the Universe. These cosmic tempests are characterized by a spectacular explosion of photons with energies 1,000,000 times greater than the most energetic light our eyes can detect. Due to their explosive power, long-lasting GRBs are predicted to have catastrophic consequences for life on any nearby planet. But could this type of event occur in our own stellar neighborhood? In a new paper published in Physical Review Letters, two astrophysicists examine the probability of a deadly GRB occurring in galaxies like the Milky Way, potentially shedding light on the risk for organisms on Earth, both now and in our distant past and future.

There are two main kinds of GRBs: short, and long. Short GRBs last less than two seconds and are thought to result from the merger of two compact stars, such as neutron stars or black holes. Conversely, long GRBs last more than two seconds and seem to occur in conjunction with certain kinds of Type I supernovae, specifically those that result when a massive star throws off all of its hydrogen and helium during collapse.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, long GRBs are much more threatening to planetary systems than short GRBs. Since dangerous long GRBs appear to be relatively rare in large, metal-rich galaxies like our own, it has long been thought that planets in the Milky Way would be immune to their fallout. But take into account the inconceivably old age of the Universe, and “relatively rare” no longer seems to cut it.

In fact, according to the authors of the new paper, there is a 90% chance that a GRB powerful enough to destroy Earth’s ozone layer occurred in our stellar neighborhood some time in the last 5 billion years, and a 50% chance that such an event occurred within the last half billion years. These odds indicate a possible trigger for the second worst mass extinction in Earth’s history: the Ordovician Extinction. This great decimation occurred 440-450 million years ago and led to the death of more than 80% of all species.

Today, however, Earth appears to be relatively safe. Galaxies that produce GRBs at a far higher rate than our own, such as the Large Magellanic Cloud, are currently too far from Earth to be any cause for alarm. Additionally, our Solar System’s home address in the sleepy outskirts of the Milky Way places us far away from our own galaxy’s more active, star-forming regions, areas that would be more likely to produce GRBs. Interestingly, the fact that such quiet outer regions exist within spiral galaxies like our own is entirely due to the precise value of the cosmological constant – the factor that describes our Universe’s expansion rate – that we observe. If the Universe had expanded any faster, such galaxies would not exist; any slower, and spirals would be far more compact and thus, far more energetically active.

In a future paper, the authors promise to look into the role long GRBs may play in Fermi’s paradox, the open question of why advanced lifeforms appear to be so rare in our Universe. A preprint of their current work can be accessed on the ArXiv.