“An Incredible Mystery” –Colossal Supernova Obscured the Glow of Entire Galaxies

supermassive star Eta Carinae


“A billion years ago, something in the whirling darkness of space erupted with a fury that obscured the glow of entire galaxies,” reports Robin Andrews in Quanta after scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics announced the discovery of the most massive star ever known to be destroyed by a supernova explosion that could rewrite the physics of stars, The event challenges existing models of how massive stars die, providing insight into the death of the first stars in the universe 

“Eventually”, continued Andrews, “the light from that cataclysm reached Earth, and in November 2016, it was captured by a group of intrepid humans at the European Space Agency’s Gaia Satellite. They found that the conflagration wasn’t just unfathomably energetic, but, like a lonely bonfire, it kept on burning, dimming so slowly that its glow can still be seen years after it began.”

A Unique Beast –In a Previously Uncharted  Galaxy

Three years of intensive follow up observations of the supernova SN2016iet revealed characteristics—incredibly long duration and large energy, unusual chemical fingerprints, and an environment poor in metals—for which there are no analogues in the existing astronomical literature.

Milky Way’s First-of-Its-Kind Nest of Massive Stars –“Poised for Most Powerful Explosion Since Big Bang”

“When we first realized how thoroughly unusual SN2016iet is, my reaction was ‘whoa – did something go horribly wrong with our data?'” said Sebastian Gomez, Harvard University graduate student and lead author of the paper. “After a while we determined that SN2016iet is an incredible mystery, located in a previously uncatalogued galaxy one billion light years from Earth.”

The team used a variety of telescopes, including the CfA | Harvard & Smithsonian’s MMT Observatory located at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Amado, AZ, and the Magellan Telescopes at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile to show that SN2016iet is different than the thousands of supernovas observed by scientists for decades.

Everything About this Supernova Looks Different

“Everything about this supernova looks different—its change in brightness with time, its spectrum, the galaxy it is located in, and even where it’s located within its galaxy, said Dr. Edo Berger, Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and an author on the paper. “We sometimes see supernovas that are unusual in one respect, but otherwise are normal; this one is unique in every possible way.”

Death of a Colossal Star 200 Xs Mass of Our Sun

The observations and analysis show that SN2016iet began as an incredibly massive star 200 times the mass of Earth’s Sun that mysteriously formed in isolation roughly 54,000 light years from the center of its host dwarf galaxy. The star lost about 85 percent of its mass during a short life of only a few million years, all the way up to its final violent collapse when runaway thermonuclear reactions occur and the star explodes. The collision of the explosion-debris with the material shed in the final decade before explosion led to SN2016iet’s unusual appearance, providing scientists with the first strong case of a pair-instability supernova — a supernova where pairs of matter and antimatter particles (namely electrons and positrons) are produced. 

“Our ‘Mother’ Sun was a Supernova”

A  Pair-instability Supernova

“The idea of pair-instability supernovas has been around for decades,” said Berger. “But finally having the first observational example that puts a dying star in the right regime of mass, with the right behavior, and in a metal-poor dwarf galaxy is an incredible step forward. SN2016iet represents the way in which the most massive stars in the universe, including the first stars, die.”

The team will continue to observe and study SN2016iet for years, watching for additional clues as to how it formed, and how it will evolve. “Most supernovas fade away and become invisible against the glare of their host galaxies within a few months. But because SN2016iet is so bright and so isolated we can study its evolution for years to come,” said Gomez. “These observations are already in progress and we can’t wait to see what other surprises this supernova has in store for us.”

Avi Shporer, Research Scientist, MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research via Harvard-Smithsonian CfA, Quanta, Astrophysical Journal

Image at top of page: shows the supermassive star Eta Carinae, destined to explode as a massive supernova. Before its demise, it is kicking off material, much like SN2016iet did previous to its eruption. The “bells” recorded in this image from the Hubble Space Telescope, were first seen in 1840, and may be the result of a collision with another star. This body sits 7,500 light years from Earth. Image credit: NASA, ESA, N. Smith (University of Arizona) and J. Morse (BoldlyGo Institute).


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