We’re in the Milky Way’s Second Life. Star Formation was Shut Down for Billions of Years

Since the birth of modern astronomy, scientists have sought to determine the full extent of the Milky Way galaxy and learn more about its structure, formation and evolution. According to current theories, it is widely believed that the Milky Way formed shortly after the Big Bang (roughly 13.51 billion years ago). This was the result of the first stars and star clusters coming together, as well as the accretion of gas directly from the Galactic halo.

Continue reading “We’re in the Milky Way’s Second Life. Star Formation was Shut Down for Billions of Years”

Uncloaking Type Ia Supernovae

This three-color composite of a portion of the Subaru Deep Field shows mostly galaxies with a few stars. The inset shows one of the 10 most distant and ancient Type Ia supernovae discovered by the American, Israeli and Japanese team.

Type Ia supernovae… Right now they are one of the most studied – and most mysterious – of all stellar phenomenon. Their origins are sheer conjecture, but explaining them is only half the story. Taking a look back into almost the very beginnings of our Universe is what it’s all about and a team of Japanese, Israeli, and U.S. astronomers have employed the Subaru Telescope to give us the most up-to-date information on these elementally explosive cosmic players.

By understanding the energy release of a Type Ia supernova, astronomers have been able to measure unfathomable distances and speculate on dark energy expansion. It was popular opinion that what caused them was a white dwarf star pulling in so much matter from a companion that it finally exploded, but new research points in a different direction. According to the latest buzz, it may very well be the merging of two white dwarfs.

“The nature of these events themselves is poorly understood, and there is a fierce debate about how these explosions ignite,” said Dovi Poznanski, one of the main authors of the paper and a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“The main goal of this survey was to measure the statistics of a large population of supernovae at a very early time, to get a look at the possible star systems,” he said. “Two white dwarfs merging can explain well what we are seeing.”

Can you imagine the power behind this theory? The Type Ia unleashed a thermonuclear reaction so strong that it is able to be traced back to nearly the beginning of expansion after the Big Bang. By employing the Subaru telescope and its prime focus camera (Suprime-Cam), the team was able to focus their attention four times on a small area named the Subaru Deep Field. In their imaging they caught 150,000 individual galaxies containing a total of 40 Type Ia supernova events. One of the most incredible parts of these findings is that these events happened about five times more frequently in the early Universe. But no worries… Even though the mechanics behind them are still poorly understood, they still serve as “cosmic distance markers”.

“As long as Type Ias explode in the same way, no matter what their origin, their intrinsic brightnesses should be the same, and the distance calibrations would remain unchanged.” says Alex Filippenko, UC Berkeley professor of astronomy.

Original Story Source: University of Berkeley News Release. For Further Reading: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan: Subaru News Release.

Milky Way Harbors “Ticking Time Bombs”

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According to new research, the only thing that may be keeping elderly stars from exploding is their rapid spin. In a galaxy filled with old stars, this means we could literally be sitting on a nearby “time bomb”. Or is this just another scare tactic?

“We haven’t found one of these ‘time bomb’ stars yet in the Milky Way, but this research suggests that we’ve been looking for the wrong signs. Our work points to a new way of searching for supernova precursors,” said astrophysicist Rosanne Di Stefano of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA).

In light of the two recently discovered supernova events in Messier 51 and Messier 101, it isn’t hard to imagine the Milky Way having more than one candidate for a Type Ia supernova. This is precisely the type of stellar explosion Di Stefano and her colleagues are looking for… and it happens when a white dwarf star goes critical. It has reached Chandrasekhar mass. Add any more weight and it blows itself apart. How does this occur? Some astronomers believe Type Ia supernova are sparked by accretion from a binary companion – or a collision of two similar dwarf stars. However, there hasn’t been much – if any – evidence to support either theory. This has left scientists to look for new answers to old questions. Di Stefano and her colleagues suggest that white dwarf spin might just be what we’re looking for.

“A spin-up/spin-down process would introduce a long delay between the time of accretion and the explosion. As a white dwarf gains mass, it also gains angular momentum, which speeds up its spin. If the white dwarf rotates fast enough, its spin can help support it, allowing it to cross the 1.4-solar-mass barrier and become a super-Chandrasekhar-mass star. Once accretion stops, the white dwarf will gradually slow down. Eventually, the spin isn’t enough to counteract gravity, leading to a Type Ia supernova.” explains Di Stefano. “Our work is new because we show that spin-up and spin-down of the white dwarf have important consequences. Astronomers therefore must take angular momentum of accreting white dwarfs seriously, even though it’s very difficult science.”

Sure. It might take a billion years for the spin down process to happen – but what’s a billion years in cosmic time? In this scenario, it’s enough to allow accretion to have completely stopped and a companion star to age to a white dwarf. In the Milky Way there’s an estimated three Type Ia supernovae every thousand years. If figures are right, a typical super-Chandrasekhar-mass white dwarf takes millions of years to spin down and explode. This means there could be dozens of these “time bomb” systems within a few thousand light-years of Earth. While we’re not able to ascertain their locations now, upcoming wide-field surveys taken with instruments like Pan-STARRS and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope might give us a clue to their location.

“We don’t know of any super-Chandrasekhar-mass white dwarfs in the Milky Way yet, but we’re looking forward to hunting them out,” said co-author Rasmus Voss of Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands.

And the rest of us hope you don’t find them…

Original Story Source: Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics News. For Further Reading: Spin-Up/Spin-Down models for Type Ia Supernovae.