Supernovae are spectacular but fairly rare events, at least on the human time scale. In our own galaxy, only 5 have been seen (necessarily by the naked eye, before telescopes were invented in 1608) in the last 2000 years. Since there have been none in our galaxy when any telescopes were available to study them, let alone the sophisticated instruments we have now, it’s not very surprising that there’s a lot that isn’t known about how these stellar explosions occur.
We do know that the are several types of supernova that can be distinguished by properties of their spectra (if they are close enough to Earth for spectra to be obtained). The most basic distinction is between supernovae that have hydrogen lines in their spectra (Type II), and those that don’t (Type I). Further subdivisions are possible, but the most important is between subtypes of Type I that have a prominent line due to silicon (Type Ia), and those that don’t (Type Ib and Type Ic).
For various reasons, Type Ia supernovae are especially interesting. One is that at their peak they have a fairly uniform intrinsic brightness (absolute magnitude -19.3, in the somewhat peculiar way that astronomers measure brightness). All other types have absolute magnitudes that vary over a range of about -17 to -18.5. One unit in this scale corresponds to a factor of 2.51, so for example a supernova of absolute magnitude -17 is only about 10% as bright as the standard Type Ia supernova. The fact that all Type Ia supernovae have nearly the same absolute magnitude is what makes them useful as “standard candles” to measure cosmic distances.
That Type Ia supernovae have this uniform intrinsic brightness has been explained by a model in which a white dwarf star of mass less than 1.38 solar masses (the Chandrasekhar limit) gradually (or perhaps suddenly) exceeds this limit, resulting in an explosion that destroys the star. Almost all other types of supernovae can be explained as occurring when a very massive star (more than 9 solar masses) runs out of nuclear fuel, resulting in a “core collapse” since the whole mass of the star can no longer be supported by the pressure of nuclear reactions.
Two more detailed scenarios have been proposed for circumstances leading to a Type Ia supernova. One involves a binary system with one white dwarf and one normal star, portions of whose matter are gradually drawn off by the white dwarf. The second involves a binary system of two white dwarfs that eventually merge, as gravitational waves slowly dissipate their orbital kinetic energy. Historically, astrophysicists have favored the first scenario, though with rather little actual evidence.
Surprisingly (or perhaps not, since white dwarfs aren’t very luminous stars), it has never been possible to identify a progenitor for a Type Ia supernova – all that have been observed with telescopes are in other galaxies. Neither has it been possible to detect another star, afterwards, at the event location, which would be the remaining member of the binary pair. But now research has just been published that provides evidence, rather indirectly, for the second scenario, in which Type Ia supernovae in fact result from the merger of two white dwarfs.
Universe’s “Standard Candles” Are White Dwarf Mergers
A new survey of distant Type Ia supernovae suggests that many if not most of these supernovae – key to astronomers’ conclusion that dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the universe – result when two white dwarf stars merge and annihilate in a thermonuclear explosion.
Evidence that Type Ia supernovae are caused by the merger of two white dwarfs – the so called double-degenerate theory – has been accumulating over the past two years, based on surveys by the Hubble Space Telescope and others. Before, astronomers favored the single-degenerate model: the idea that Type Ia’s result from the explosion of a white dwarf grown too fat by feeding on its normal stellar companion.
So, if all Type Ia events look so much alike, in spite of different models that could explain them, and if it’s difficult or impossible to observe directly what the system was like before the event, just how does the research reach its conclusions? The reasoning is somewhat indirect, but ingenious and not that hard to follow.
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