White Dwarf 'Sibling Rivalry' Explodes into Supernova

Nov 01, 2007
White Dwarf 'Sibling Rivalry' Explodes into Supernova
This artist´s conception shows two white dwarf stars spiraling in toward each other until they collide. A collision like this is believed to have spawned supernova 2006gz. Credit: NASA/Dana Berry, Sky Works Digital

Astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) have found that a supernova discovered last year was caused by two colliding white dwarf stars. The white dwarfs were siblings orbiting each other. They slowly spiraled inward until they merged, touching off a titanic explosion. CfA observations show the strongest evidence yet of what was, until now, a purely theoretical mechanism for creating a supernova.

"This finding shows that nature may be richer than we suspected, with more than one way to make a white dwarf explode," said Harvard graduate student and first author Malcolm Hicken.

The paper describing this discovery appeared in the November 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Astronomers characterize an observed supernova based on whether its spectrum shows evidence of hydrogen (Type II) or not (Type I). In Type II, a massive, short-lived star undergoes core collapse and explodes. In the conventional picture for Type Ia, the most common supernovae lacking hydrogen, a white dwarf star collects gas from a companion star until it undergoes catastrophic nuclear fusion and blasts itself apart.

The new find, supernova 2006gz, was classified as a Type Ia due to the lack of hydrogen and other characteristics. However, an analysis combining CfA data with measurements from The Ohio State University suggested that SN 2006gz was unusual and deserved a closer look.

Most importantly, SN 2006gz showed the strongest spectral signature of unburned carbon ever seen. Merging white dwarfs are expected to have carbon outside their densest regions. The powerful explosion from the inside then should push off the outmost carbon-rich layers.

The spectrum of SN 2006gz also showed evidence for compressed layers of silicon. Silicon was created during the explosion and then compressed by a shock wave that rebounded from the surrounding layers of carbon and oxygen. Computer models for merging white dwarfs predict both the carbon and silicon spectral signatures.

Additionally, SN 2006gz was brighter than expected, indicating that its progenitor exceeded the 1.4 solar mass Chandrasekhar limit – the upper bound for a single white dwarf. Only one other potential example of a super-Chandrasekhar supernova has been seen: SN 2003fg. While observations of that event were suggestive, the data from SN 2006gz are much stronger.

"Our case is different. Although 2006gz is also extra bright, the chemistry we see, particularly unburned carbon, is well observed and very unusual," said Harvard astronomer Robert Kirshner, a member of the discovery team.

In addition to providing the first example of a new way to make supernovae, SN 2006gz holds implications for the field of cosmology. Type Ia supernovae typically have a narrow spread in brightness, which makes them useful as "standard candles" for calculating cosmic distances. It was the study of Type Ia supernovae that led to the discovery of dark energy, the mysterious force causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate.

If Type Ia supernovae are more varied than previously expected, then astronomers must be extra cautious when using them to study the cosmos.

"Supernova 2006gz stands out from normal Type Ia objects and wouldn’t be included in cosmology studies," commented Hicken. "But we have to be careful not to mistake a double white dwarf explosion for a single white dwarf blast. SN 2006gz was easy to recognize, but there may be less clear-cut cases."

Source: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Explore further: Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Can astronomy explain the biblical Star of Bethlehem?

Dec 24, 2014

Bright stars top Christmas trees in Christian homes around much of the world. The faithful sing about the Star of Wonder that guided the wise men to a manger in the little town of Bethlehem, where Jesus was ...

Hubbles spies the beautiful galaxy IC 335

Dec 24, 2014

This new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the galaxy IC 335 in front of a backdrop of distant galaxies. IC 335 is part of a galaxy group containing three other galaxies, and located in the Fornax ...

Image: Multicoloured view of supernova remnant

Dec 22, 2014

Most celestial events unfold over thousands of years or more, making it impossible to follow their evolution on human timescales. Supernovas are notable exceptions, the powerful stellar explosions that make ...

Ultra-luminous X-ray sources in starburst galaxies

Dec 22, 2014

Ultra-luminous X-ray sources (ULXs) are point sources in the sky that are so bright in X-rays that each emits more radiation than a million suns emit at all wavelengths. ULXs are rare. Most galaxies (including ...

When a bright light fades

Dec 22, 2014

Astronomer Charles Telesco is primarily interested in the creation of planets and stars. So, when the University of Florida's giant telescope was pointed at a star undergoing a magnificent and explosive death, ...

User comments : 0

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.