Researchers model superluminous supernova in 2-D for the first time

February 3, 2017, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Astrophysicist Ken Chen ran 2D simulations with Berkeley Lab's CASTRO code on NERSC's Edison supercomputer to better understand the physical conditions that create superluminious supernova. Credit: Ken Chen, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

Sightings of a rare breed of superluminous supernovae—stellar explosions that shine 10 to 100 times brighter than normal—are perplexing astronomers. First spotted only in last decade, scientists are confounded by the extraordinary brightness of these events and their explosion mechanisms.

To better understand the physical conditions that create superluminious supernova, astrophysicists are running two-dimensional (2D) simulations of these events using supercomputers at the Department of Energy's National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) developed CASTRO code.

"This is the first time that anyone has simulated in 2D; previous studies have only modeled these events in 1D," says Ken Chen, an astrophysicist at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. "By modeling the star in 2D we can capture detailed information about fluid instability and mixing that you don't get in 1D simulations. These details are important to accurately depict the mechanisms that cause the event to be superluminous and explain their corresponding observational signatures such as light curves and spectra."

Chen is the lead author of an Astrophysical Journal paper published in December 2016. He notes that one of the leading theories in astronomy posits that superluminous supernovae are powered by highly magnetized , called magnetars.

How a star lives and dies depends on its mass—the more massive a star, the more gravity it wields. All begin their lives fusing hydrogen into helium; the energy released by this process supports the star against the crushing weight of its gravity. If a star is particularly massive it will continue to fuse helium into heavier elements like oxygen and carbon, and so on, until its core turns to nickel and iron. At this point fusion no longer releases energy and electron degeneracy pressure kicks-in and supports the star against gravitational collapse. When the core of the star exceeds its Chandrasekhar mass—approximately 1.5 solar masses—electron degeneracy no longer supports the star. At this point, the core collapses, producing neutrinos that blow up the star and create a supernova.

Astrophysicist Ken Chen ran 2D simulations with Berkeley Lab's CASTRO code on NERSC's Edison supercomputer to better understand the physical conditions that create superluminious supernova. Credit: Ken Chen, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

This iron core-collapse occurs with such extreme force that it breaks apart nickel and iron atoms, leaving behind a chaotic stew of charged particles. In this frenzied environment negatively charged electrons are shoved into positively charged protons to create neutral neutrons. Because neutrons now make up the bulk of this core, it's called a neutron star. A magnetar is essentially a type of neutron star with an extremely powerful magnetic field.

In addition to being insanely dense—a sugar-cube-sized amount of material from a neutron star would weigh more than 1 billion tons—it is also spinning up to a few hundred times per second. The combination of this rapid rotation, density and complicated physics in the core creates some extreme magnetic fields.

The magnetic field can take out the rotational energy of a neutron star and turn this energy into energetic radiation. Some researchers believe this radiation can power a superluminous supernova. These are precisely the conditions that Chen and his colleagues are trying to understand with their simulations.

Credit: Ken Chen, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan

"By doing a more realistic 2D simulation of superluminous supernovae powered by magnetars, we are hoping to get a more quantitative understanding about its properties," says Chen. "So far, astronomers have spotted less than 10 of these events; as we find more we'll be able to see if they have consistent properties. If they do and we understand why, we'll be able to use them as standard candles to measure distance in the Universe."

He also notes that because stars this massive may easily form in the early cosmos, they could provide some insights into the conditions of the distant Universe.

"To do multi-dimensional simulations of superluminous supernovae you need supercomputers (a large amount of computing power) and the right code (including relevant microphysics). It proposes a numerical challenge for such simulations, so this event has never been modeled in 2D before," says Chen. "We were the first ones to do it because we were we were lucky to have access to NERSC resources and the CASTRO code."

Explore further: Violent collision of massive supernova with surrounding gas powers superluminous supernovae

More information: Ke-Jung Chen et al. MAGNETAR-POWERED SUPERNOVAE IN TWO DIMENSIONS. I. SUPERLUMINOUS SUPERNOVAE, The Astrophysical Journal (2016). DOI: 10.3847/0004-637X/832/1/73

Related Stories

What are the different kinds of supernovae?

March 15, 2016

There are a few places in the universe that defy comprehension. And supernovae have got to be the most extreme places you can imagine. We're talking about a star with potentially dozens of times the size and mass of our own ...

What are magnetars?

August 10, 2016

In a previous article, we crushed that idea that the Universe is perfect for life. It's not. Almost the entire Universe is a horrible and hostile place, apart from a fraction of a mostly harmless planet in a backwater corner ...

Powerful ancient explosions explain new class of supernovae

December 18, 2013

Astronomers affiliated with the Supernova Legacy Survey (SNLS) have discovered two of the brightest and most distant supernovae ever recorded, 10 billion light-years away and a hundred times more luminous than a normal supernova. ...

Recommended for you

Where is the universe's missing matter?

April 19, 2018

Astronomers using ESA's XMM-Newton space observatory have probed the gas-filled haloes around galaxies in a quest to find 'missing' matter thought to reside there, but have come up empty-handed – so where is it?

New research seeks to optimize space travel efficiency

April 18, 2018

Sending a human into space and doing it efficiently presents a galaxy of challenges. Koki Ho, University of Illinois assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, and his graduate students, Hao Chen and ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (4) Feb 03, 2017
The article says;

"In this frenzied environment negatively charged electrons are shoved into positively charged positrons to create neutral neutrons.".

This is clearly nonsense. What it should have said was that electrons are "shoved into" protons.
not rated yet Feb 03, 2017

So positron = positively charged proton?
not rated yet Feb 03, 2017
TDLR: superluminious ≠ superluminal
5 / 5 (2) Feb 03, 2017
So positron = positively charged proton?

No. The positron is the anti-particle of the electron. The proton is the hadron composed of 3 quarks that is one of the constituents of atomic nuclei (and is sole component of the hydrogen nucleus).
5 / 5 (2) Feb 03, 2017
TDLR: superluminious ≠ superluminal

No. They mean superluminous (extremely luminous). Superluminal means apparently travelling at greater than the speed of light. See https://en.wikipe...l_motion

5 / 5 (3) Feb 03, 2017
So positron = positively charged proton?

Adding to what RNP wrote: Positrons is what you get in some forms of radioactive decay (beta-plus decay).
This is used, e.g. in PET scanner (PET = Positron Emission Tomography) where a radioactive isotope that shows such decay is introduced into the body (e.g. a tagged sugar).
The emitted positron flies a very short way before encountering an electron. Particle (electron) and antiparticle (positron) annihilate and produce two gamma photons which are sent out in (almost) opposite directions (due to conservation of momentum). Detectors detect these and by getting the time differential between the two detection events and the direction you can pinpoint the source in 3D space. Do this all around and you can get a full 3D image..
not rated yet Feb 04, 2017
More concerned about 3 dimensional supernovae, my house is at the intersection of X,Y,Z street.

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.