Shedding new light on star death: A new class of super-luminous supernovae

Oct 16, 2013
A neutron star. Image: NASA

Astronomers at Queen's University Belfast have shed new light on the rarest and brightest exploding stars ever discovered in the universe. The research is published tomorrow in Nature. It proposes that the most luminous supernovae – exploding stars – are powered by small and incredibly dense neutron stars, with gigantic magnetic fields that spin hundreds of times a second.

Scientists at Queen's Astrophysics Research Centre observed two super-luminous – two of the Universe's brightest exploding – for more than a year. Contrary to existing theories, which suggested that the brightest supernovae are caused by super-massive stars exploding, their findings suggest that their origins may be better explained by a type of explosion within the star's core which creates a smaller but extremely dense and rapidly spinning magnetic star.

Matt Nicholl, a research student at the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen's School of Mathematics and Physics, is lead author of the study. He said: "Supernovae are several billions of times brighter than the Sun, and in fact are so bright that amateur astronomers regularly search for new ones in nearby galaxies. It has been known for decades that the heat and light from these supernovae come from powerful blast-waves and radioactive material.

"But recently some very unusual supernovae have been found, which are too bright to be explained in this way. They are hundreds of times brighter than those found over the last fifty years and the origin of their extreme properties is quite mysterious.

"Some theoretical physicists predicted these types of explosions came from the biggest stars in the destroying themselves in a manner quite like a giant thermonuclear bomb. But our data doesn't match up with this theory.

"In a supernova explosion, the star's outer layers are violently ejected, while its core collapses to form an extremely dense neutron star – weighing as much as the Sun but only tens of kilometers across. We think that, in a small number of cases, the neutron star has a very strong magnetic field, and spins incredibly quickly – about 300 times a second. As it slows down, it could transmit the spin energy into the supernova, via magnetism, making it much brighter than normal. The data we have seems to match that prediction almost exactly."

Queen's astronomers led an international team of scientists on the study, using some of the world's most powerful telescopes. Much of the data was collected using Pan-STARRS - the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System. Based on Mount Haleakala in Hawaii, Pan-STARRS boasts the world's largest digital camera, and can cover an area 40 times the size of the full moon in one shot.

The study is one of the projects funded by a prestigious €2.3million grant from the European Research Council. The grant was awarded to Professor Stephen Smartt, Director of Queen's Astrophysics Research Centre, in 2012 to lead an international study to hunt for the Universe's earliest supernovae.

Professor Smartt said: "These are really special supernovae. Because they are so bright, we can use them as torches in the very distant Universe. Light travels through space at a fixed speed, as we look further away, we see snapshots of the increasingly distant past. By understanding the processes that result in these dazzling explosions, we can probe the Universe as it was shortly after its birth. Our goal is to find these supernovae in the early Universe, detecting some of the first stars ever to form and watch them produce the first chemical elements created in the Universe."

Explore further: How the largest star known is tearing itself apart

More information: The article entitled 'Slowly fading super-luminous supernovae that are not pair-instability supernovae' will be published in Nature on 17 October 2013. www.nature.com/nature/journal/… ull/nature12569.html

Related Stories

Distant super-luminous supernovae found

Nov 01, 2012

(Phys.org)—Two 'super-luminous' supernovae - stellar explosions 10 to 100 times brighter than other supernova types - have been detected in the distant Universe.

Dark Energy Survey set to seek out supernovae

Jul 02, 2013

(Phys.org) —The largest ever search for supernovae – exploding stars up to 10 billion times brighter than the Sun – is beginning this August. For the next five years, the Dark Energy Survey (DES) will ...

Pan-STARRS discovers two super supernovae

Jul 22, 2011

Supernovae are the brightest phenomenon in the current universe. As massive stars die as supernovae, they briefly outshine the rest of the stars in their galaxy and are visible, at least once the light gets ...

How the largest star known is tearing itself apart

Oct 16, 2013

(Phys.org) —An international team of astronomers has observed part of the final death throes of the largest known star in the universe as it throws off its outer layers. The discovery, by a collaboration ...

Pan-STARRS finds a 'lost' supernova

Mar 07, 2013

(Phys.org) —The star Eta Carinae is ready to blow. 170 years ago, this 100-solar-mass object belched out several suns' worth of gas in an eruption that made it the second-brightest star after Sirius. That ...

Recommended for you

Swirling electrons in the whirlpool galaxy

7 hours ago

The whirlpool galaxy Messier 51 (M51) is seen from a distance of approximately 30 million light years. This galaxy appears almost face-on and displays a beautiful system of spiral arms.

A spectacular landscape of star formation

14 hours ago

This image, captured by the Wide Field Imager at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile, shows two dramatic star formation regions in the Milky Way. The first, on the left, is dominated by the star cluster NGC ...

Exoplanet measured with remarkable precision

Aug 19, 2014

Barely 30 years ago, the only planets astronomers had found were located right here in our own solar system. The Milky Way is chock-full of stars, millions of them similar to our own sun. Yet the tally ...

New star catalog reveals unexpected 'solar salad'

Aug 19, 2014

(Phys.org) —An Arizona State University alumnus has devised the largest catalog ever produced for stellar compositions. Called the Hypatia Catalog, after one of the first female astronomers who lived in ...

User comments : 5

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

katesisco
1 / 5 (16) Oct 16, 2013
R Duncan, at the U of Texas has net info on magnetars. This type of explosion described sounds like an implosion where the large star's energy is imploded due to a massive magnetic field.
I theorize in Beetle Sun on Google Drive that this implosion shrinks the star and produces rocky residue from the 'dirty gas.' In our case, Sol was produced with the 'second family' of planets inside the former Beetle Sun space. Sol's magnetic reversal is the 'ticking down' of the magnetic field. Our sun is a magnetar.
Q-Star
3 / 5 (4) Oct 16, 2013
R Duncan, at the U of Texas has net info on magnetars. This type of explosion described sounds like an implosion where the large star's energy is imploded due to a massive magnetic field.
I theorize in Beetle Sun on Google Drive that this implosion shrinks the star and produces rocky residue from the 'dirty gas.' In our case, Sol was produced with the 'second family' of planets inside the former Beetle Sun space. Sol's magnetic reversal is the 'ticking down' of the magnetic field. Our sun is a magnetar.


But that doesn't account for the sea monsters they have discovered of the coast of California. Doesn't that seem to contradict the "sun is a magnetar" theory?

http://phys.org/n...firstCmt
Urgelt
4.7 / 5 (7) Oct 16, 2013
Sigh.

A magnetar, by definition, is a neutron star.

If Sol were a neutron star, or even if it had magnetic fields as intense as those associated with magnetars minus the magnetar itself, I think somebody might have noticed by now. Or rather, somebody with a clue.

It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway): cranks notice all sorts of amazing things nobody else can see.

Why, exactly, do cranks flock to PhysOrg? Do they really imagine that their fantasies deserve equal space with peer-reviewed science?
Q-Star
1 / 5 (2) Oct 16, 2013
Sigh.

A magnetar, by definition, is a neutron star.

If Sol were a neutron star, or even if it had magnetic fields as intense as those associated with magnetars minus the magnetar itself, I think somebody might have noticed by now. Or rather, somebody with a clue.

It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway): cranks notice all sorts of amazing things nobody else can see.

Why, exactly, do cranks flock to PhysOrg? Do they really imagine that their fantasies deserve equal space with peer-reviewed science?


Ah, don't mind Kathleen, she a devotee of the Oliver Manuel school of astrophysics. (When she goes to one of his lectures, I hope she won't be taking her children though.)
Humpty
1 / 5 (8) Oct 16, 2013
Hmmmmm this depends.

Is the magnestar, a true sun, or is it a spare fuel module for Alien Tech Hyper drives?

After all we can't postulate about any old Alien Space Tech., after all this is a siense ciense sie fiziks place and we cannot have any rubbish posted here.