Unusual supernova may be new type of exploding star

November 3rd, 2009 - 2:40 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, November 3 (ANI): An unusual supernova rediscovered in seven-year-old data may be the first example of a new type of exploding star, possibly from a binary star system where helium flows from one white dwarf onto another and detonates in a thermonuclear explosion.

University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) astronomer Dovi Poznanski and his colleagues describe the outburst, dubbed SN 2002bj, and why they believe it is a new type of explosion.

“This is the fastest evolving supernova we have ever seen,” said Poznanski, a UC Berkeley post-doctoral fellow who recently joined LBNL’s Computational Cosmology Center.

“It was three to four times faster than a standard supernova, basically disappearing within 20 days. Its brightness just dropped like a rock,” he added.

This rapid drop, coupled with the supernova’s faintness, the strong signature of helium in the spectrum of the explosion, the absence of hydrogen, and the possible presence of vanadium - an element never previously identified in supernova spectra - points toward helium detonation on a white dwarf, according to the astronomers.

“We think this may well be a new physical explosion mechanism, not just a minor variation of ones already known,” said co-author Alex Filippenko, UC Berkeley professor of astronomy.

“This supernova is qualitatively different from the complete disruption of a white dwarf, known as a Type Ia supernova, or the collapse of an iron core and rebound of the surrounding material, so-called ‘core-collapse supernovae’, he added.

According to co-author Joshua Bloom, UC Berkeley associate professor of astronomy, “We have seen great diversity in those two main supernova mechanisms, but even within that diversity, observationally, there is a limited range of variation spectrally and in how events evolve in time.”

“This object (SN 2002bj) falls outside that range,” he said.

The supernova was detected in 2002 in the galaxy NGC 1821, in the constellation Lepus, by Filippenko’s Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope (KAIT) at Lick Observatory near San Jose as well as by amateur astronomers.

Due to an unfortunate alignment of circumstances, the supernova was erroneously classified by the astronomical community as a common Type II supernova and filed away.

In June, Poznanski happened upon the spectrum while searching for Type II supernovae he hopes to use as distance indicators to confirm the accelerating expansion of the universe.

When he carefully examined a high-quality spectrum of SN 2002bj, he realized that the supernova was not a Type II at all, but an unusual kind of supernova more akin to a Type Ia. (ANI)

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