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Superstar Supernovae Arghya Gupta

Superstar Supernovae

Cosmos Magazine

Imagine looking to the sky tonight and seeing a source of light which made you cast a

shadow onto the ground you were standing on. A source of light so bright that you thought that it

was the Moon, if it weren’t already in another part of the night sky. Perhaps you could cast it off as a

helicopter searchlight, but in the year 185 AD, that would not have been a logical explanation.
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Superstar Supernovae Arghya Gupta

Yet that is exactly what Chinese astronomers saw that year. A source of light, half the size of

the moon, sitting right in the middle of the Centauri constellation. A source of light which remained

in the sky – day and night – for eight months. A source of light which has now been confirmed by

astrophysicists as the first supernova to be recorded by the human eye.

A supernova (plural supernovae) is a mysterious thing. It is an event which occurs when a

massive star, much bigger than our Sun, is in its death throes. Under too much pressure to maintain

itself in its spherical form, it explodes in a spectacular burst of radiation full of colour, noise, x-rays,

and gamma rays. “Supernovae are crucibles of fury,” describes Dr Peter Tuthill, a leader of two

supernovae-based research projects at the University of Sydney. “They push the realms of

temperature, pressure, and density and help us understand the boundaries of physics.” A pushing of

boundaries only begins to describe the processes happening inside a dying star.

Stars keep themselves stable and glowing by burning hydrogen and fusing it into helium

through nuclear processes at extremely hot temperatures. The thermal energy from this fusion helps

to keep the star in a state of hydrostatic balance for billions of years. It is when the hydrogen runs

out, the real fun starts. To maintain themselves against the forces of gravity, stars start burning the

leftover helium, which lay under the original layer of hydrogen, before moving onto more and more

fused heavier elements such as oxygen, carbon, and iron, which exist near the hotter core of the


“This is the Law of Diminishing Returns, because every time the star resorts to higher-mass

fuel, it gets less energy than from the hydrogen it started with,” adds Tuthill. “And though they

aren’t sentient beings, they become more and more desperate to support themselves – and burn

these elements which yield less and less energy, until they reach the point where there’s nothing


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That’s when the supernova occurs. The star collapses into its core at a speed of around 70

000 kilometres per second – think one quarter of the speed of light – into a ball 20 kilometres across,

with 1046 joules of energy packed in – a level of density equal to having Mount Everest fit inside a

teaspoon – at a temperate of 100 billion degrees Kelvin; about 6000 times as hot as the Sun’s core.

The neutrons and protons in this ball of ultimate density then interact through the strong and weak

electromagnetic forces before coming to a decision, in a matter of milliseconds – to explode and

spread most of the stellar matter from the original star, along with trillions of subatomic neutrino

particles, into the echelons of space surrounding the collapsed core, resulting in the dazzling

supernova remnant which will one day grace the films of long-exposure telescopic cameras.

There are, of course, other types of supernovae. While Type II Supernovae, the result of the

death of massive stars, described in the previous paragraph, are the more common example

relevant to astronomers, others, such as the Type Ia, are just as relevant to some researchers such as

Dr Tamara Davis, who is in Saul Perlmutter’s ESSENCE Project. “Type Ia supernovae happen when

white dwarf stars explode after accreting matter from companion stars and can no longer support

their own weight,” says Davis, who uses these Type Ia supernovae as research tools to explore why

the universe is expanding as accelerating rates. There are even Type Ib and Ic supernovae, which are

more like Type II supernovae, but resulting from the deaths of stars which have lost their main fuel

due to stellar winds. But it is the unique magnitude of brightness that Type Ia supernovae display

that makes them the focus of Davis and her team’s research.

The ESSENCE (or, ‘Equation of State: SupErNovae trace Cosmic Expansion’) project was set

up by Saul Perlmutter, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Library. In 1999, Perlmutter discovered

that the universe was expanding at an accelerating rate – something not predicted by conventional

physics – after all, gravity was presumed to be the uniform force of the universe, and gravity only

pulls things together, not push them apart faster and faster. Perlmutter, alongside another research

team (ANU’s Brian Schmidt-led High-Z Team), coined this phenomenon as ‘dark energy’ – which,
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according to the latest NASA calculations, accounts for 73 per cent of all energy in the universe. All

done through the observation of a coincidental pattern present in 15 supernovae. The ESSENCE

project was established after the discovery in order to continue the exploration on a wider scale of

over 200 Type Ia supernovae throughout the universe.

“The tipping point at which a Type Ia supernovae forms is fairly narrow, meaning every

explosion of the type is approximately the same brightness, or what we call ‘standard candles’,” says

Davis, a recipient of the L’Oreal Women in Science Fellowship. “Just by measuring how bright they

are, we can infer their distance, and by measuring their redshifts [the same concept underlying the

sound changes an ambulance makes as it gets closer or further away from you], we can see how fast

they are moving away from us. That way, we can see whether the universe expansion has sped up,

or slowed down.”

Looking at and observing supernovae may help unlock the secrets of the universe one day,

with research based groups such as the ESSENCE project leading the way. Supernovae, however, are

more than just eye candy, and have a substantial role in the development of the universe. Without

them, you would find it hard to read this, as most of the molecules in your body most likely

originated in an ancient supernova.

Of course, they took a long time to get into the form that they are now, but the main

constituents came out of supernovae, something which can be deduced from the remnants that

supernovae leave behind. Dr Jasmina Lazendic-Galloway, the Margaret Clayton Research Fellow at

Monash University, specialises in research of supernovae remnants, and believes they are integral to

the building blocks of the universe. “Supernovae remnants are a major part of stellar evolution –

they are dynamic chemical contributors to the interstellar medium,” says Lazendic-Galloway. “The

shock from a supernova heats and compresses the material around it, creating the conditions for

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Superstar Supernovae Arghya Gupta

new stellar formation. These areas are the only places where elements heavier than hydrogen or

helium can be produced.”

Planets form at the same time as a new star does, when clumps start forming from dust in

the interstellar medium under the influence of attractive gravity. The largest of these clumps usually

becomes the star at the centre of the system while gravity dictates that the others start orbiting it.

When this process occurs in a supernovae-remnant-enriched part of a galaxy, then rocky, mineral

rich planets such as Earth and Mars are formed, while those groups of matter which do not manage

to successfully load themselves with heavy elements become gaseous giants such as Jupiter or

Saturn. Due to supernovae being somewhat rare events in terms of whole galaxies, the situation

needed for dust to be of Earth-forming elements such as iron, oxygen, calcium, and carbon only

comes around once every blue, red, or green moon. In a sense, you can thank your lucky stars – or

now dead star – you’re alive.

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Superstar Supernovae Arghya Gupta

There are other ways planets can get heavy metals as part of their makeup. “Astronomers

like to see the galaxy as an ecosystem,” says Peter Tuthill in regards to stellar evolution. “The same

way we know the matter in our bodies will one day be returned to the Earth and used by other

organisms years from now, the same thing happens on a cosmic scale with stars. In a sort of grand

tapestry, the materials dispersed by one supernova disperse into a new generation of stars, enriched

with everything we need for life on a planet like Earth.”

Supernovae still remain the actual source of heavy metals. They remain the focus of

cosmological research projects aiming to see what and why the mysterious ‘dark energy’ is, and how

it is speeding up the expansion of the 13.7 billion year old universe. They remain consistent markers

for astronomers looking to measure the distance to far out objects thanks to their strict nature of

exploding at a certain magnitude of brightness. “You could never understand the galaxy or the

universe as a whole without them because they’re integral parts of it,” adds Tuthill. “It’s like trying to

understand the ocean without knowing how plankton works.”

But, just as some plankton are parasitic bacterium, some supernovae, notably Type Ic, are

the most damaging wreakers of havoc in the universe. This is because some Type Ic supernovae are

presumed to be the progenitors of the most energetic weapon in the universe – the gamma ray

burst. They occur when instead of exploding into the spectacular remnants of a supernova which we

see most Type Ic spend their energy on, the energy gets concentrated and shoots out from two ends

of the black hole which remains after the star dies – one hit of which, from a nearby supernova,

would completely obliterate the Earth in a style which would not be out of place in a Star Wars film.

If it were to happen, it would all happen within an instant, so there would be little reason to fret –

but even then, it is a big ‘if’.

“Our solar system is very far away from any potential supernovae, so we don’t have much to

worry about,” assures Kate Scholberg, the Anne and Robert Bass Professor of Physics at Duke

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University in North Carolina. Scholberg is part of a supernova detection team, the SuperNova Early

Warning System, or SNEWS, which studies the presence of subatomic neutrino particles in space to

see where a supernova has occurred, hours or even days before it is detectable through any

electromagnetic telescope. But any warning that does come will only be for scientific interest, not

for the fate of our planet, reckons Scholberg; “A relatively nearby supernova, such as Betelgeuse

[the red star in the shoulder of the Orion constellation], could eventually cause an increase in cosmic

radiation, but probably would not affect anything below the Earth’s atmosphere.”

The question of when a nearby supernova, such as Betelgeuse, will occur is something few

have an answer to. “We know which stars are likely to explode as supernovae; we know how many

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are born every year, so we should know how many die every year. The thing is, we don’t see quite

enough to make up the numbers,” confesses Peter Tuthill, who has one research team set on

supernovae progenitors. But perhaps it is all down to the luck of the draw. There are 200 billion stars

in the Milky Way galaxy (and there are trillions of galaxies). To be able to spot that one star near

death reflects odds which could scare the most experienced of gamblers. For Tuthill, it is just a

massive bet; “We don’t know when we’re due for one. Eta Carinae and Betelgeuse could go off

tomorrow – but then again, tomorrow could mean a hundred thousand years in astronomical terms

– these stars live for about 10 billion years, a thousand years here or there doesn’t make a

difference. It’s like rolling dice; if you haven’t got a six for a while, it doesn’t mean the next one will

be a six to make up for it.”

Since that first recorded supernova in 185 AD, there have been 12 which have been visible

to the naked eye. The most recent, SN1987A (supernovae are named after the year in which they

were sighted, then categorised alphabetically dependent on brightness), as well as one other,

occurred outside our galaxy. While thousands have been seen through telescopes in faraway

galaxies, the last one to occur in the Milky Way was SN1604. The predicted rate is one supernova

every 50 years according to observations of those other galaxies. Why we don’t see it is, like Tuthill

suggested, a bad roll of the die. When the face does show up a six though, you can be assured that

we, or our grandchildren, or their grandchildren, will marvel at the spectacle in the same awe as our

Chinese ancestors did nearly two millennia ago.

Arghya Gupta is a Sydney based writer. He currently holds a Distinction in Cosmology from Charles

Sturt University.

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All images are used courtesy of NASA, which states that;

“You may use NASA imagery, video, audio, and data files used for the rendition of 3-dimensional

models for educational or informational purposes, including photo collections, textbooks, public

exhibits, computer graphical simulations and Internet Web pages. This general permission extends

to personal Web pages.”

See; http://www.nasa.gov/audience/formedia/features/MP_Photo_Guidelines.html

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