Officials at the U.S. space agency NASA say they have uncovered the secrets of the supernova.
Top officials at NASA say new data from the Swift orbiting telescope have revealed exactly what leads to Type Ia supernovas.
“Now, thanks to unprecedented X-ray and ultraviolet data from Swift, we have a clearer picture of what’s required to blow up these stars,” says Stefan Immler, NASA astrophysicist.
The new data come from NASA’s Swift satellite, which is currently orbiting the Earth and sending back observations of short-wavelength radiation from Type Ia supernovas.
Astronomers, using recently gathered data, say that they believe most Type Ia supernovas start as a white dwarf, which is pulling matter from a companion star that it is orbiting. As the gas flows onto the white dwarf it gains mass until it reaches a critical threshold and undergoes a catastrophic explosion, say astronomers.
These explosions, which can outshine their galaxy for weeks, release large and consistent amounts of energy at visible wavelengths. The characteristics make them among the most valuable tools in astronomy, providing scientists with a standard from which to measure brightness and distance.
Astronomers have known for decades that Type Ia supernovae originate with a remnant star called a white dwarf, which detonates when pushed to a critical mass. The environment that sets the stage for the explosion, however, has been more difficult to determine.
“For all their importance, it’s a bit embarrassing for astronomers that we don’t know fundamental facts about the environs of these supernovae,” said Mr. Immler.
It remains unclear exactly how the latest findings will impact scientists understanding of these massive interstellar explosions.
Swift launched in November 2004 and is managed by Goddard. It is operated in collaboration with Pennsylvania State University and other national and international partners. The telescope’s primary mission is to locate gamma-ray bursts, which are more distant and energetic explosions associated with the birth of black holes. Between these bursts, astronomers are often able to use Swift’s unique capabilities to study other objects, including newly discovered supernovae.
The satellite’s X-ray Telescope (XRT) has studied more than 200 supernovae to date, with about 30 percent being Type Ia, according to NASA.
Studies based on the data are set to be published in a pair of journals. Both The Astrophysical Journal Letters and The Astrophysical Journal will reportedly publish the full results in April.