Astronomers Find Rare Beast by New Means

January 27, 2010
Core-collapse supernova explosion expelling nearly-spherical debris shell. CREDIT: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

( -- For the first time, astronomers have found a supernova explosion with properties similiar to a gamma-ray burst, but without seeing any gamma rays from it. The discovery, using the National Science Foundation's Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope, promises, the scientists say, to point the way toward locating many more examples of these mysterious explosions.

"We think that radio observations will soon be a more powerful tool for finding this kind of in the nearby Universe than gamma-ray satellites," said Alicia Soderberg, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The telltale clue came when the radio observations showed material expelled from the , dubbed SN2009bb, at speeds approaching that of light. This characterized the supernova, first seen last March, as the type thought to produce one kind of gamma-ray burst.

"It is remarkable that very low-energy radiation, radio waves, can signal a very high-energy event," said Roger Chevalier of the University of Virginia.

When the nuclear fusion reactions at the cores of very massive stars no longer can provide the energy needed to hold the core up against the weight of the rest of the star, the core collapses catastrophically into a superdense neutron star or black hole. The rest of the star's material is blasted into space in a supernova explosion. For the past decade or so, astronomers have identified one particular type of such a "core-collapse supernova" as the cause of one kind of .

Not all supernovae of this type, however, produce gamma-ray bursts. "Only about one out of a hundred do this," according to Soderberg.

In the more-common type of such a supernova, the explosion blasts the star's material outward in a roughly-spherical pattern at speeds that, while fast, are only about 3 percent of the speed of light. In the supernovae that produce gamma-ray bursts, some, but not all, of the ejected material is accelerated to nearly the speed of light.

The superfast speeds in these rare blasts, astronomers say, are caused by an "engine" in the center of the supernova explosion that resembles a scaled-down version of a quasar. Material falling toward the core enters a swirling disk surrounding the new neutron star or black hole. This accretion disk produces jets of material boosted at tremendous speeds from the poles of the disk.

"This is the only way we know that a supernova explosion could accelerate material to such speeds," Soderberg said.

Until now, no such "engine-driven" supernova had been found any way other than by detecting gamma rays emitted by it.

"Discovering such a supernova by observing its radio emission, rather than through gamma rays, is a breakthrough. With the new capabilities of the Expanded VLA coming soon, we believe we'll find more in the future through radio observations than with gamma-ray satellites," Soderberg said.

Why didn't anyone see gamma rays from this explosion? "We know that the gamma-ray emission is beamed in such blasts, and this one may have been pointed away from Earth and thus not seen," Soderberg said. In that case, finding such blasts through radio observations will allow scientists to discover a much larger percentage of them in the future.

"Another possibility," Soderberg adds, "is that the gamma rays were 'smothered' as they tried to escape the star. This is perhaps the more exciting possibility since it implies that we can find and identify engine-driven supernovae that lack detectable and thus go unseen by gamma-ray satellites."

One important question the scientists hope to answer is just what causes the difference between the "ordinary" and the "engine-driven" core-collapse supernovae. "There must be some rare physical property that separates the stars that produce the 'engine-driven' blasts from their more-normal cousins," Soderberg said. "We'd like to find out what that property is."

One popular idea is that such stars have an unusually low concentration of elements heavier than hydrogen. However, Soderberg points out, that does not seem to be the case for this supernova.

Explore further: New Type of Cosmic Explosion More Powerful Than Supernovae

Related Stories

New Type of Cosmic Explosion More Powerful Than Supernovae

August 5, 2004

Astronomers have identified a new class of cosmic explosions that are more powerful than supernovae but considerably weaker than most gamma-ray bursts. The discovery strongly suggests a continuum between the two previously-known ...

VLA Probes Secrets of Mysterious Magnetar

February 18, 2005

A giant flash of energy from a supermagnetic neutron star thousands of light-years from Earth may shed a whole new light on scientists' understanding of such mysterious "magnetars" and of gamma-ray bursts. In the nearly ...

On the Scent of a Pre-Historic Particle Accelerator?

February 9, 2006

An international team of astrophysicists have used the H.E.S.S. telescopes to uncover the trail of a 10,000 year old supernova at the heart of the Milky Way. In a paper published in Nature (6th February 2006), they describe ...

The Oddball Hosts of Gamma-ray Bursts

October 22, 2008

There's a universal tendency to heed Dylan Thomas's exhortation and go out with a bang instead of a whimper. Nowhere is this more evident than deep in the cosmos.

Very High Energy Gamma Rays

September 25, 2009

( -- Gamma-rays are the most energetic known form of electromagnetic radiation, with each gamma ray being at least one hundred thousand times more energetic than an optical light photon. The most potent gamma ...

Recommended for you

The hottest white dwarf in the Galaxy

November 25, 2015

Astronomers at the Universities of Tübingen and Potsdam have identified the hottest white dwarf ever discovered in our Galaxy. With a temperature of 250,000 degrees Celsius, this dying star at the outskirts of the Milky ...

Hubble captures a galactic waltz

November 26, 2015

This curious galaxy—only known by the seemingly random jumble of letters and numbers 2MASX J16270254+4328340—has been captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope dancing the crazed dance of a galactic merger. The ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 27, 2010
Many new elements, such as nickel are created in the intermediate layers during core collapse, perhaps an unusual high content creation of other, more ferromagnetic elements than nickel, will interact more with the superfast spinning magnetig field of the neutron star remnant and hence be more suspectible to form a swirl
not rated yet Jan 27, 2010
I will say their method works when they detect both radio and gamma from the same object sequentially.
not rated yet Jan 29, 2010
@brant, That day may not be far off. As reported here, http://www.physor...389.html , a second example has come to light, SN 2007gr. Alas, no simultaneous gamma-ray/radio emission, but the sample size is going up.

Related paper out today re SN 2007gr:
1 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2010
I have a radical idea that may explain the cause and nature of gamma ray bursts. From the information I have gathered, most are recorded far beyond the visible spectrum which can be observed by an optical telescope. I believe with all my heart that gamma ray bursts are signatures of "big bang" events far beyond our own universe. For all we know in our few hundreds of years knowledge of advanced astronomy and physics, it could be that big bangs are occurring every few days or so far outside our univese itself, meaning that the universe could be more infinite than we think, even containing an infinite number of universes created by big bang events. When they turn on the LHC and gamma rays are emitted in the collisions powerful enough to imitate the state just briefly after the big bang, my hypothesis could prove to be valid.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2010
I believe with all my heart that gamma ray bursts are signatures of "big bang" events far beyond our own universe.
Please explain the difference between "in our universe" and "beyond our universe".
not rated yet Jan 30, 2010
our universe being the one we know of currently expanding. I believe that the gamma ray bursts are other separate big bangs happening deeper in space, other expansions occurring, beyond the one which contain our galaxies and the optically observable ones. That would explain the massive gamma signatures, which seem to be light years beyond the galaxies we observe through optical telescopes. Why can't we find supernovas that display these gamma signatures? It must be some other event, and I believe that they are signatures of other big bangs, other universes created. I don't know, maybe they are proofs of the multiverse (not parallel, just billions upon billions light years away, more and more big bangs) Does this make sense? I am not an astronomer or scientist, but I'd like to know why I have never heard anyone else hypothesize this to explain these enormous gamma ray signatures. It makes perfect sense to me, if you can fathom just how infinite it is out there.
not rated yet Jan 30, 2010
An alternative scenario suggests that colliding protons could be the source of the VHE gamma rays.

This is a quote from a portion of the above article. The LHC will smash protons, the LHC is supposed to be the experiment to produce.... conditions which mimic the condition moments after the big bang.
5 / 5 (1) Jan 30, 2010
senility, quite a few GRBs have reasonably accurate known distances and have been found to reside in the outskirts of galaxies. All GRBs are thought to reside in galaxies or star-forming regions, not beyond them.

Your concept of multiverses sounds like a flavor of 'eternal inflation' that's been kicking around for some time (bubble universe model). Check out the wiki: http://en.wikiped...n_theory .
1 / 5 (1) Feb 01, 2010
Common guys we all know that Gamma Ray Bursts are the equivalent of light barrier "sonic booms" when an object/particle is propelled past the speed of light, only possibly due to gravitational/space time distortions similar to the environment within a Super Nova, and creates something like a photon wake, particles that are prevalent in all regions of space....Just kidding of course, but that would be cool!

VLA Rocks and I apologize in advance for not adding to the scientific discussion with my SciFi flights of fancy but there is a whole lot we don't know about GRB.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.