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Wild, Hidden Cousin Of SN 1987A: Powerful Supernova Caught By Web Of Telescopes

Date:
September 27, 2008
Source:
European Southern Observatory - ESO
Summary:
Astronomers may have discovered the relative of a freakishly behaving exploding star once thought to be the only one of its kind. For more than two decades, astronomers have intensively studied supernova 1987A, an exploding star that had behaved like no other. Instead of growing dimmer with time, 1987A has grown brighter at X-ray and radio wavelengths. Over a decade after it exploded, one of the nearest supernovae in the last 25 years has been identified.

This composite image shows the central regions of the nearby Circinus galaxy, located about 12 million light years away. Data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory is shown in blue and data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space telescope is shown in yellow ("I-band"), red (hydrogen emission), cyan ("V-band") and light blue (oxygen emission). The blue source near the lower right hand corner of the image is the supernova SN 1996cr, that has finally been identified over a decade after it exploded. The supernova was first singled out in 2001 as a bright, variable object in a Chandra image, but it was not confirmed as a supernova until years later, when clues from a spectrum obtained with ESO's Very Large Telescope led the team to start the real detective work of searching through data from 18 different telescopes, both ground- and space-based, nearly all of which was in the archives. SN 1996cr is one of the nearest supernovae in the last 25 years.
Credit: X-ray (NASA/CXC/Columbia/F.Bauer et al); Visible light (NASA/STScI/UMD/A.Wilson et al.)

Astronomers may have discovered the relative of a freakishly behaving exploding star once thought to be the only one of its kind. For more than two decades, astronomers have intensively studied supernova 1987A, an exploding star that had behaved like no other. Instead of growing dimmer with time, 1987A has grown brighter at X-ray and radio wavelengths.

The supernova, called SN 1996cr, was first singled out in 2001 by Franz Bauer. Bauer noticed a bright, variable source in the Circinus spiral galaxy, using NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. Although the source displayed some exceptional properties Bauer and his Penn State colleagues could not identify its nature confidently at the time.

It was not until years later that Bauer and his team were able to confirm that this object was a supernova. Clues from a spectrum obtained by ESO’s Very Large Telescope led the team to start the real detective work of searching through data from 18 different telescopes, both ground- and space-based, nearly all of which existed. Because this object was found in an interesting nearby galaxy, the public archives of these telescopes contained abundant observations.

The data show that SN 1996cr is among the brightest supernovae ever seen in radio and X-rays. It also bears many striking similarities to the famous supernova SN 1987A, which occurred in a neighbouring galaxy only 160 000 light-years from Earth.

“This supernova appears to be a wild cousin of SN 1987A,” says Bauer. “The two look alike in many ways, except this newer supernova is intrinsically a thousand times brighter in radio and X-rays.”

Visible-light images from the archives of the Anglo-Australian Telescope in Australia show that SN 1996cr exploded sometime between 28 February 1995 and 15 March 1996, but it is the only one of the five nearest supernovae of the last 25 years that was not seen shortly after the explosion.

Other major X-ray observatories in orbit like ROSAT and ASCA did not detect SN 1996cr, but since it was first detected by Chandra in 2001 it has become steadily brighter. Previously, SN 1987A was the only known supernova with an X-ray output that increased over time.

“It’s a bit of a coup to find SN 1996cr like this, and we could never have nailed it without the serendipitous data taken by all of these telescopes. We've truly entered a new era of ‘internet astronomy’,” said Bauer.

The combined data, in conjunction with theoretical work, have led the team to develop a model for the explosion. Before the parent star exploded, it cleared out a large cavity in the surrounding gas, either via a strong wind or from an outburst from the star late in its life. So the blast wave from the explosion itself could expand relatively unimpeded into this cavity. Once the blast wave hit the dense material surrounding SN1996cr, the impact caused the system to glow brightly in X-ray and radio emission. The X-ray and radio emission from SN 1987A is probably fainter because the surrounding material is less compact.

Astronomers think that both SN 1987A and SN 1996cr show evidence for these pre-explosion clear-outs by a star doomed to explode. Having two nearby examples suggests that this type of activity could be relatively common during the death of massive stars.

“Not only does our work suggest that SN 1987A isn’t as unusual as previously thought, but it also teaches us more about the tremendous upheavals that massive stars can undergo over their lifetimes,” said co-author Vikram Dwarkadas of the University of Chicago.

About the Circinus galaxy

The Circinus galaxy is indeed a rather interesting object, with rings of gas being ejected from the galaxy. It is 13 million light-years away from the Milky Way.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by European Southern Observatory - ESO. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. F.E. Bauer et al. Supernova 1996cr: SN 1987A's Wild Cousin? The Astrophysical Journal, (in press) [link]

Cite This Page:

European Southern Observatory - ESO. "Wild, Hidden Cousin Of SN 1987A: Powerful Supernova Caught By Web Of Telescopes." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 September 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080925083211.htm>.
European Southern Observatory - ESO. (2008, September 27). Wild, Hidden Cousin Of SN 1987A: Powerful Supernova Caught By Web Of Telescopes. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 23, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080925083211.htm
European Southern Observatory - ESO. "Wild, Hidden Cousin Of SN 1987A: Powerful Supernova Caught By Web Of Telescopes." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/09/080925083211.htm (accessed July 23, 2014).

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