Scientists answer supernova riddle
Paris - The discovery of a supernova only hours after its explosion has probably solved a long-standing mystery on the origin of the brightest known phenomena in the Universe, scientists reported on Wednesday.
On August 24, scientists witnessed the spectacular eruption of light and energy thrown off by the birth of SN 2011fe, the brightest and - at a mere 20.9 million light years away - closest-to-Earth supernova in over 25 years.
One light year is the distance that light travels in 365 Earth days, about 9.46 trillion kilometres.
"We caught the supernova just 11 hours after it exploded, so soon that we were later able to calculate the actual moment of the explosion within 20 minutes," said Peter Nugent of the US Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and lead author of one of two studies, both published in Nature.
"With this close-up look, we found things nobody had dreamed of," he said in a statement.
Brightness thrown off by the violent stellar blast of type 1a supernovas is the yardstick for measuring distances across space.
This was crucial in this year's Nobel Prize winning discovery that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating and not slowing down, as once thought.
Up to now, astronomers had advanced three competing scenarios to explain the origin of 1a supernovas, rare events that only happen once every couple of hundred years in a galaxy such as our own.
In all three, a so-called white dwarf - an ageing star in decline - steals matter, and energy, from a companion star until the white dwarf explodes in a flash a billion times brighter than our Sun.
A supernova is so powerful it can outshine an entire galaxy such as the Milky Way, which contains some 200 billion stars, for several weeks.
White dwarfs are essentially Earth-sized diamonds. A single tablespoon weighs about ten tons.
Most white dwarfs die not with a bang but a whimper, gradually leaking away heat over billions of years.
But a few interact with other stars to create supernova detonations that are, in essence, colossal thermonuclear explosions.
The question was this: What species are these progenitor companion stars that feed white dwarfs until they burst?
Candidates included a red giant, a second white dwarf, and a so-called subgiant star, of which our Sun is a specimen.
By looking at pre-blast images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, one team of scientists led by Li Weidong was able to exclude the red giants, which are 10 000 times more luminous that the Sun.
They were not, however, able to narrow things down more.
Nugent's team, which observed SN 2011fe exploding in the Pinwheel Galaxy from the California's Palomar Observatory, took the analysis a step further.
Sifting through the spectrum of the supernova as it expanded, they determined that the companion start was most likely a subgiant, also known as a main-sequence star.
"If there was a giant companion star orbiting nearby, we should have seen some fireworks when the debris from the supernova crashed into it," said co-author Daniel Kasen, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
"Because we didn't observe any bright flashes like that, we determined that the companion star could not have been much bigger than our Sun."
"Although the studies do not yet provide a definitive answer to this question, they are a reassuring step forward," said Mario Hamuy, in a commentary, also published in Nature.
But scientists may have to wait another 30 years before another supernova explodes in our neighbourhood or, if we are lucky, in our very own Milky Way, he said.