A supernova (plural: supernovae or supernovas) is a stellar explosion. They are extremely luminous and cause a burst of radiation that often briefly outshines an entire galaxy before fading from view over several weeks or months. During this short interval, a supernova can radiate as much energy as the Sun could emit over its life span. The explosion expels much or all of a star's material at a velocity of up to a tenth the speed of light, driving a shock wave into the surrounding interstellar medium. This shock wave sweeps up an expanding shell of gas and dust called a supernova remnant.
Several types of supernovae exist that may be triggered in one of two ways, involving either turning off or suddenly turning on the production of energy through nuclear fusion. After the core of an aging massive star ceases to generate energy from nuclear fusion, it may undergo sudden gravitational collapse into a neutron star or black hole, releasing gravitational potential energy that heats and expels the star's outer layers. Alternatively, a white dwarf star may accumulate sufficient material from a stellar companion (usually through accretion, rarely via a merger) to raise its core temperature enough to ignite carbon fusion, at which point it undergoes runaway nuclear fusion, completely disrupting it. Stellar cores whose furnaces have permanently gone out collapse when their masses exceed the Chandrasekhar limit, while accreting white dwarfs ignite as they approach this limit (roughly 1.38 times the mass of the sun). White dwarfs are also subject to a different, much smaller type of thermonuclear explosion fueled by hydrogen on their surfaces called a nova. Solitary stars with a mass below approximately nine solar masses, such as the Sun itself, evolve into white dwarfs without ever becoming supernovae.
On average, supernovae occur about once every 50 years in a galaxy the size of the Milky Way. They play a significant role in enriching the interstellar medium with higher mass elements. Furthermore, the expanding shock waves from supernova explosions can trigger the formation of new stars.
Nova (plural novae) means "new" in Latin, referring to what appears to be a very bright new star shining in the celestial sphere; the prefix "super-" distinguishes supernovae from ordinary novae, which also involve a star increasing in brightness, though to a lesser extent and through a different mechanism. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the word supernova was first used in print in 1926.
The earliest recorded supernova, SN 185, was viewed by Chinese astronomers in 185 CE. The brightest recorded supernova was the SN 1006, which was described in detail by Chinese and Arab astronomers. The widely observed supernova SN 1054 produced the Crab Nebula. Supernovae SN 1572 and SN 1604, the last to be observed with the naked eye in the Milky Way galaxy, had notable effects on the development of astronomy in Europe because they were used to argue against the Aristotelian idea that the universe beyond the Moon and planets was immutable.
Since the development of the telescope, the field of supernova discovery has enlarged to other galaxies, starting with the 1885 observation of supernova S Andromedae in the Andromeda galaxy. Supernovae provide important information on cosmological distances. During the twentieth century, successful models for each type of supernova were developed, and scientists' comprehension of the role of supernovae in the star formation process is growing.
Some of the most distant supernovae recently observed appeared dimmer than expected. This has provided evidence that the expansion of the universe may be accelerating.
Supernovae in other galaxies cannot be predicted with any meaningful accuracy. Normally, when they are discovered, they are already in progress. Most scientific interest in supernovae—as standard candles for measuring distance, for example—require an observation of their peak luminosity. It is therefore important to discover them well before they reach their maximum. Amateur astronomers, who greatly outnumber professional astronomers, have played an important role in finding supernovae, typically by looking at some of the closer galaxies through an optical telescope and comparing them to earlier photographs.
Towards the end of the 20th century, astronomers increasingly turned to computer-controlled telescopes and CCDs for hunting supernovae. While such systems are popular with amateurs, there are also larger installations like the Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope. Recently, the Supernova Early Warning System (SNEWS) project has also begun using a network of neutrino detectors to give early warning of a supernova in the Milky Way galaxy. A neutrino is a particle that is produced in great quantities by a supernova explosion, and it is not absorbed by the interstellar gas and dust of the galactic disk.
Supernova searches fall into two classes: those focused on relatively nearby events and those looking for explosions farther away. Because of the expansion of the universe, the distance to a remote object with a known emission spectrum can be estimated by measuring its Doppler shift (or redshift); on average, more distant objects recede with greater velocity than those nearby, and so have a higher redshift. Thus the search is split between high redshift and low redshift, with the boundary falling around a redshift range of z = 0.1–0.3—where z is a dimensionless measure of the spectrum's frequency shift.
High redshift searches for supernovae usually involve the observation of supernova light curves. These are useful for standard or calibrated candles to generate Hubble diagrams and make cosmological predictions. At low redshift, supernova spectroscopy is more practical than at high redshift, and this is used to study the physics and environments of supernovae. Low redshift observations also anchor the low distance end of the Hubble curve, which is a plot of distance versus redshift for visible galaxies.
Supernova discoveries are reported to the International Astronomical Union's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, which sends out a circular with the name it assigns to it. The name is formed by the year of discovery, immediately followed by a one or two-letter designation. The first 26 supernovae of the year get designated with an upper case letter from A to Z. Afterward, pairs of lower-case letters are used, starting with aa, ab, and so on. Professional and amateur astronomers find several hundred supernovae each year (367 in 2005, 551 in 2006 and 572 in 2007). For example, the last supernova of 2005 was SN 2005nc, indicating that it was the 367th supernova found in 2005.
Historical supernovae are known simply by the year they occurred: SN 185, SN 1006, SN 1054, SN 1572 (Tycho's Nova) and SN 1604 (Kepler's Star). Since 1885, the letter notation was used, even if there was only one supernova discovered that year (e.g. SN 1885A, 1907A, etc.)—this last happened with SN 1947A. The standard abbreviation "SN" is an optional prefix.
|Type Ia||Lacks hydrogen and presents a singly-ionized silicon (Si II) line at 615.0 nm (nanometers), near peak light.|
|Type Ib||Non-ionized helium (He I) line at 587.6 nm and no strong silicon absorption feature near 615 nm.|
|Type Ic||Weak or no helium lines and no strong silicon absorption feature near 615 nm.|
|Type IIP||Reaches a "plateau" in its light curve|
|Type IIL||Displays a "linear" decrease in its light curve (linear in magnitude versus time).|
The supernovae of Type II can also be sub-divided based on their spectra. While most Type II supernova show very broad emission lines which indicate expansion velocities of many thousands of kilometres per second, some have relatively narrow features. These are called Type IIn, where the "n" stands for "narrow".
A few supernovae, such as SN 1987K and SN 1993J, appear to change types: they show lines of hydrogen at early times, but, over a period of weeks to months, become dominated by lines of helium. The term "Type IIb" is used to describe the combination of features normally associated with Types II and Ib.
One model for the formation of this category of supernova is a close binary star system. The larger of the two stars is the first to evolve off the main sequence, and it expands to form a red giant. The two stars now share a common envelope, causing their mutual orbit to shrink. The giant star then sheds most of its envelope, losing mass until it can no longer continue nuclear fusion. At this point it becomes a white dwarf star, composed primarily of carbon and oxygen. Eventually the secondary star also evolves off the main sequence to form a red giant. Matter from the giant is accreted by the white dwarf, causing the latter to increase in mass.
Another model for the formation of a Type Ia explosion involves the merger of two white dwarf stars, with the combined mass momentarily exceeding the Chandrasekhar limit. A white dwarf could also accrete matter from other types of companions, including a main sequence star (if the orbit is sufficiently close).
Type Ia supernovae follow a characteristic light curve—the graph of luminosity as a function of time—after the explosion. This luminosity is generated by the radioactive decay of nickel-56 through cobalt-56 to iron-56. The peak luminosity of the light curve was believed to be consistent across Type Ia supernovae (the vast majority of which are initiated with a uniform mass via the accretion mechanism), allowing them to be used as a secondary standard candle to measure the distance to their host galaxies. However, recent discoveries reveal that there is some evolution in the average lightcurve width, and thus in the intrinsic luminosity of Supernovae, although significant evolution is found only over a large redshift baseline.
These events, like supernovae of Type II, are probably massive stars running out of fuel at their centers; however, the progenitors of Types Ib and Ic have lost most of their outer (hydrogen) envelopes due to strong stellar winds or else from interaction with a companion. Type Ib supernovae are thought to be the result of the collapse of a massive Wolf-Rayet star. There is some evidence that a few percent of the Type Ic supernovae may be the progenitors of gamma ray bursts (GRB), though it is also believed that any hydrogen-stripped, Type Ib or Ic supernova could be a GRB, dependent upon the geometry of the explosion.
Stars with at least nine solar masses of material evolve in a complex fashion. In the core of the star, hydrogen is fused into helium and the thermal energy released creates an outward pressure, which maintains the core in hydrostatic equilibrium and prevents collapse.
When the core's supply of hydrogen is exhausted, this outward pressure is no longer created. The core begins to collapse, causing a rise in temperature and pressure which becomes great enough to ignite the helium and start a helium-to-carbon fusion cycle, creating sufficient outward pressure to halt the collapse. The core expands and cools slightly, with a hydrogen-fusion outer layer, and a hotter, higher pressure, helium-fusion center. (Other elements such as magnesium, sulfur and calcium are also created and in some cases burned in these further reactions.)
This process repeats several times, and each time the core collapses and the collapse is halted by the ignition of a further process involving more massive nuclei and higher temperatures and pressures. Each layer is prevented from collapse by the heat and outward pressure of the fusion process in the next layer inward; each layer also burns hotter and quicker than the previous one – the final burn of silicon to nickel consumes its fuel in around one day, or a few days. The star becomes layered like an onion, with the burning of more easily fused elements occurring in larger shells.
In the later stages, increasingly heavier elements undergo nuclear fusion, and the binding energy of the relevant nuclei increases. Fusion produces progressively lower levels of energy, and also at higher core energies photodisintegration and electron capture occur which cause energy loss in the core and a general acceleration of the fusion processes to maintain equilibrium. This escalation culminates with the production of nickel-56, which is unable to produce energy through fusion (but does produce iron-56 through radioactive decay). As a result, a nickel-iron core builds up that cannot produce any further outward pressure on a scale needed to support the rest of the structure. It can only support the overlaying mass of the star through the degeneracy pressure of electrons in the core. If the star is sufficiently large, then the iron-nickel core will eventually exceed the Chandrasekhar limit (1.38 solar masses), at which point this mechanism catastrophically fails. The forces holding atomic nuclei apart in the innermost layer of the core suddenly give way, the core implodes due to its own mass, and no further fusion process can ignite or prevent collapse this time.
In a typical Type II supernova, the newly formed neutron core has an initial temperature of about 100 billion kelvin (100 GK); 6000 times the temperature of the sun's core. Much of this thermal energy must be shed for a stable neutron star to form (otherwise the neutrons would "boil away"), and this is accomplished by a further release of neutrinos. These 'thermal' neutrinos form as neutrino-antineutrino pairs of all flavors, and total several times the number of electron-capture neutrinos. About 1046 joules of gravitational energy—about 10% of the star's rest mass—is converted into a ten-second burst of neutrinos; the main output of the event. These carry away energy from the core and accelerate the collapse, while some neutrinos may be later absorbed by the star's outer layers to provide energy to the supernova explosion.
The inner core eventually reaches typically 30 km diameter, and a density comparable to that of an atomic nucleus, and further collapse is abruptly stopped by strong force interactions and by degeneracy pressure of neutrons. The infalling matter, suddenly halted, rebounds, producing a shock wave that propagates outward. Computer simulations indicate that this expanding shock does not directly cause the supernova explosion; rather, it stalls within milliseconds in the outer core as energy is lost through the dissociation of heavy elements, and a process that is not clearly understood is necessary to allow the outer layers of the core to reabsorb around 1044 joules (1 foe) of energy, producing the visible explosion. Current research focuses upon a combination of neutrino reheating, rotational and magnetic effects as the basis for this process.
When the progenitor star is below about 20 solar masses (depending on the strength of the explosion and the amount of material that falls back), the degenerate remnant of a core collapse is a neutron star. Above this mass the remnant collapses to form a black hole. (This type of collapse is one of many candidate explanations for gamma ray bursts—producing a large burst of gamma rays through a still theoretical hypernova explosion.) The theoretical limiting mass for this type of core collapse scenario was estimated around 40–50 solar masses.
Above 50 solar masses, stars were believed to collapse directly into a black hole without forming a supernova explosion, although uncertainties in models of supernova collapse make accurate calculation of these limits difficult. In fact recent evidence has shown stars in the range of about 140–250 solar masses, with a relatively low proportion of elements more massive than helium, may be capable of forming pair-instability supernovae without leaving behind a black hole remnant. This rare type of supernova is formed by an alternate mechanism (partially analogous to that of Type Ia explosions) that does not require an iron core. An example is the Type II supernova SN 2006gy, with an estimated 150 solar masses, that demonstrated the explosion of such a massive star differed fundamentally from previous theoretical predictions.
The light curves for Type II supernovae are distinguished by the presence of hydrogen Balmer absorption lines in the spectra. These light curves have an average decay rate of 0.008 magnitudes per day; much lower than the decay rate for Type I supernovae. Type II are sub-divided into two classes, depending on whether there is a plateau in their light curve (Type II-P) or a linear decay rate (Type II-L). The net decay rate is higher at 0.012 magnitudes per day for Type II-L compared to 0.0075 magnitudes per day for Type II-P. The difference in the shape of the light curves is believed to be caused, in the case of Type II-L supernovae, by the expulsion of most of the hydrogen envelope of the progenitor star.
The plateau phase in Type II-P supernovae is due to a change in the opacity of the exterior layer. The shock wave ionizes the hydrogen in the outer envelope, which greatly increases the opacity. This prevents photons from the inner parts of the explosion from escaping. Once the hydrogen cools sufficiently to recombine, the outer layer becomes transparent.
Of the Type II supernovae with unusual features in their spectra, Type IIn supernovae may be produced by the interaction of the ejecta with circumstellar material. Type IIb supernovae are likely massive stars which have lost most, but not all, of their hydrogen envelopes through tidal stripping by a companion star. As the ejecta of a Type IIb expands, the hydrogen layer quickly becomes optically thin and reveals the deeper layers.
One explanation for the asymmetry in the explosion is large-scale convection above the core. The convection can create variations in the local abundances of elements, resulting in uneven nuclear burning during the collapse, bounce and resulting explosion.
Another explanation is that accretion of gas onto the central neutron star can create a disk that drives highly directional jets, propelling matter at a high velocity out of the star, and driving transverse shocks that completely disrupt the star. These jets might play a crucial role in the resulting supernova explosion. (A similar model is now favored for explaining long gamma ray bursts.)
Initial asymmetries have also been confirmed in Type Ia supernova explosions through observation. This result may mean that the initial luminosity of this type of supernova may depend on the viewing angle. However, the explosion becomes more symmetrical with the passage of time. Early asymmetries are detectable by measuring the polarization of the emitted light.
The progenitors of Type Ia supernovae, on the other hand, are compact objects, much smaller (but more massive) than the Sun, that must expand (and therefore cool) enormously before becoming transparent. Heat from the explosion is dissipated in the expansion and is not available for light production. The radiation emitted by Type Ia supernovae is thus entirely attributable to the decay of radionuclides produced in the explosion; principally nickel-56 (with a half-life of 6.1 days) and its daughter cobalt-56 (with a half-life of 77 days). Gamma rays emitted during this nuclear decay are absorbed by the ejected material, heating it to incandescence.
As the material ejected by a Core Collapse supernova expands and cools, radioactive decay eventually takes over as the main energy source for light emission in this case also. A bright Type Ia supernova may expel 0.5–1.0 solar masses of nickel-56, while a Core Collapse supernova probably ejects closer to 0.1 solar mass of nickel-56.
The r-process reaction, which is likely to occur in type II supernovae, produces about half of all the element abundance beyond iron, including plutonium, uranium and californium. The only other major competing process for producing elements heavier than iron is the s-process in large, old red giant stars, which produces these elements much more slowly, and which cannot produce elements heavier than lead.
In standard astronomy, the Big Bang produced hydrogen, helium, and traces of lithium, while all heavier elements are synthesized in stars and supernovae. Supernovae tend to enrich the surrounding interstellar medium with metals, which for astronomers means all of the elements other than hydrogen and helium and is a different definition than that used in chemistry.
These injected elements ultimately enrich the molecular clouds that are the sites of star formation. Thus, each stellar generation has a slightly different composition, going from an almost pure mixture of hydrogen and helium to a more metal-rich composition. Supernovae are the dominant mechanism for distributing these heavier elements, which are formed in a star during its period of nuclear fusion, throughout space. The different abundances of elements in the material that forms a star have important influences on the star's life, and may decisively influence the possibility of having planets orbiting it.
The kinetic energy of an expanding supernova remnant can trigger star formation due to compression of nearby, dense molecular clouds in space. The increase in turbulent pressure can also prevent star formation if the cloud is unable to lose the excess energy.
Evidence from daughter products of short-lived radioactive isotopes shows that a nearby supernova helped determine the composition of the Solar System 4.5 billion years ago, and may even have triggered the formation of this system. Supernova production of heavy elements over astronomic periods of time ultimately made the chemistry of life on Earth possible.
Speculation as to the effects of a nearby supernova on Earth often focuses on large stars as Type II supernova candidates. Several prominent stars within a few hundred light years from the Sun are candidates for becoming supernovae in as little as a millennium. One example is Betelgeuse, a red supergiant 427 light-years from Earth. Though spectacular, these "predictable" supernovae are thought to have little potential to affect Earth.
Recent estimates predict that a Type II supernova would have to be closer than eight parsecs (26 light-years) to destroy half of the Earth's ozone layer. Such estimates are mostly concerned with atmospheric modeling and considered only the known radiation flux from SN 1987A, a Type II supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Estimates of the rate of supernova occurrence within 10 parsecs of the Earth vary from once every 100 million years to once every one to ten billion years.
Type Ia supernovae are thought to be potentially the most dangerous if they occur close enough to the Earth. Because Type Ia supernovae arise from dim, common white dwarf stars, it is likely that a supernova that could affect the Earth will occur unpredictably and take place in a star system that is not well studied. One theory suggests that a Type Ia supernova would have to be closer than a thousand parsecs (3300 light-years) to affect the Earth. The closest known candidate is IK Pegasi (see below).
In 1996, astronomers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign theorized that traces of past supernovae might be detectable on Earth in the form of metal isotope signatures in rock strata. Subsequently, iron-60 enrichment has been reported in deep-sea rock of the Pacific Ocean by researchers from the Technical University of Munich.
Several large stars within the Milky Way have been suggested as possible supernovae within the next few thousand to hundred million years. These include Rho Cassiopeiae, Eta Carinae, RS Ophiuchi, the Kitt Peak Downes star KPD1930+2752, HD 179821, IRC+10420, VY Canis Majoris, Betelgeuse, Antares, and Spica.
The nearest supernova candidate is IK Pegasi (HR 8210), located at a distance of only 150 light-years. This closely-orbiting binary star system consists of a main sequence star and a white dwarf, separated by only 31 million km. The dwarf has an estimated mass equal to 1.15 times that of the Sun. It is thought that several million years will pass before the white dwarf can accrete the critical mass required to become a Type Ia supernova.