A picture of a newborn supernova in its first half-dozen hours of life could reveal the mechanics behind the massive explosions, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Physics.
Supernovae occur when a giant star runs out of fuel and explodes. The events are so bright and so strong that they briefly outshine every other star in their systems.
While astronomers have caught glimpses of supernovas a few minutes after they explode, this is the first time scientists have captured newborn supernova light across multiple wavelengths. That is important because, as chemicals can absorb certain wavelengths, the signatures can be used to gain information on a star’s composition.
Though supernovae have been the subject of study for some time, researchers are not sure how they erupt with such great force. Looking at a star’s finals years could shed light on this mystery, but the dying bodies are quite rare. Not a single of the 100 billion to 400 billion stars in the Milky Way is in its final stages of life.
Researchers detected the new finding — known as SN 2013fs — using data taken from the Intermediate Palomar Transient Factory at the Palomar Observatory in California. They believe the star was a red super giant several hundred times wider than the sun and 10 to 17 times as heavy.
The supernova occurred 160 million light-years from Earth in a spiral galaxy known as NGC 7610. That is relatively close the Milky Way, which allowed scientists to easily view the eruption. The team watched the event with telescopes at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii and NASA’s Swift satellite just six hours after the explosion.
This showed that SN 2013fs was a Type II supernova, which happens when the core of a massive star runs out of fuel and collapses in a fraction of a second. This then causes the material to blast outward at an extremely high rate.
The team also found that SN 2013fs rapidly spewed out vast amounts of material at speeds of nearly 224,000 mph a year before it died. Such a finding gives more credence to the idea that dying stars signal their death by spewing out a disk of material in the months before they die.
“It’s as if the star ‘knows’ its life is ending soon, and puffing material at an enhanced rate during its final breaths,” study lead author Ofer Yaron, an astrophysicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, told Space.com. “Think of a volcano or geyser bubbling before an eruption.”
These findings suggest that stars could be unstable a long time before they turn into a Type II supernova. If true, it could change the way scientists view the structure of a star. While many more questions remain, new technology focused on capturing supernovae a day or less after they explode could help shed new light on the cosmic events.
Observing a supernova in its first hours is “crucial for shedding light on our understanding of both the latest stages of evolution of massive stars and of the explosion mechanisms themselves,” added Yaron, according to Tech Times.