Supernova Explosions Over Millions of Years –“Source of Antimatter in the Milky Way”





Scientists have known since the early 1970s that the inner parts of the Milky Way galaxy are a strong source of gamma-rays, indicating the existence of antimatter, but there had been no settled view on where the antimatter came from. Now, a team of international astrophysicists led by The Australian National University (ANU) has shown how most of the antimatter in the Milky Way forms. Antimatter is material composed of the antiparticle partners of ordinary matter – when antimatter meets with matter, they quickly annihilate each other to form a burst of energy in the form of gamma-rays.

Roland Crocker from the Australia National University Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics said the team had shown that the cause was a series of weak supernova explosions over millions of years, each created by the convergence of two white dwarfs which are ultra-compact remnants of stars no larger than two suns.

"Our research provides new insight into a part of the Milky Way where we find some of the oldest stars in our galaxy," said Crocker. Crocker added that the team had ruled out the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way and the still-mysterious dark matter as being the sources of the antimatter.

He said the antimatter came from a system where two white dwarfs form a binary system and collide with each other. The smaller of the binary stars loses mass to the larger star and ends its life as a helium white dwarf, while the larger star ends as a carbon-oxygen white dwarf.

"The binary system is granted one final moment of extreme drama: as the white dwarfs orbit each other, the system loses energy to gravitational waves causing them to spiral closer and closer to each other," Dr Crocker said. He added that once they became too close the carbon-oxygen white dwarf ripped apart the companion star whose helium quickly formed a dense shell covering the bigger star, quickly leading to a thermonuclear supernova that was the source of the antimatter.

A team of researchers pointed the telescope at GK Persei shown at the top of the page, an object that became a sensation in the astronomical world in 1901 when it suddenly appeared as one of the brightest stars in the sky for a few days, before gradually fading away in brightness. Today, astronomers cite GK Persei as an example of a “classical nova,” an outburst produced by a thermonuclear explosion on the surface of a white dwarf star, the dense remnant of a Sun-like star.

A nova can occur if the strong gravity of a white dwarf pulls material from its orbiting companion star. If enough material, mostly in the form of hydrogen gas, accumulates on the surface of the white dwarf, nuclear fusion reactions can occur and intensify, culminating into a cosmic-sized hydrogen bomb blast. The outer layers of the white dwarf are blown away, producing a nova outburst that can be observed for a period of months to years as the material expands into space.

Classical novas can be considered to be “miniature” versions of supernova explosions. Supernovas signal the destruction of an entire star and can be so bright that they outshine the whole galaxy where they are found. Supernovas are extremely important for cosmic ecology because they inject huge amounts of energy into the interstellar gas, and are responsible for dispersing elements such as iron, calcium and oxygen into space where they may be incorporated into future generations of stars and planets.

The Daily Galaxy via Australian National University

Image credit: NASA

"The Galaxy" in Your Inbox, Free, Daily