New research shows that some old stars might be held up by their rapid spins, and when they slow down, they explode as supernovae. Thousands of these "time bombs" could be scattered throughout our Galaxy.
Why could this be important? A massive white dwarf star in our galaxy may become a supernova several million years from now, and could possibly destroy life on Earth. Most astronomers today believe that one of the plausible reasons we have yet to detect intelligent life in the universe is due to the deadly effects of local supernova explosions that wipe out all life in a given region of a galaxy.
The specific type of stellar explosion Di Stefano and her colleagues studied is called a Type Ia supernova. It occurs when an old, compact star known as a white dwarf destabilizes. A white dwarf is a stellar remnant that has ceased nuclear fusion. It typically can weigh up to 1.4 times as much as our Sun - a figure called the Chandrasekhar mass after the astronomer who first calculated it. Any heavier, and gravity overwhelms the forces supporting the white dwarf, compacting it and igniting runaway nuclear fusion that blows the star apart.
There are two possible ways for a white dwarf to exceed the Chandrasekhar mass and explode as a Type Ia supernova. It can accrete gas from a donor star, or two white dwarfs can collide.
Most astronomers favor the first scenario as the more likely explanation. But we would expect to see certain signs if the theory is correct, and we don't for most Type Ia supernovae.
For example, we should detect small amounts of hydrogen and helium gas near the explosion, but we don't. That gas would come from matter that wasn't accreted by the white dwarf, or from the disruption of the companion star in the explosion. Astronomers also have looked for the donor star after the supernova faded from sight, without success.
Di Stefano and her colleagues suggest that white dwarf spin might solve this puzzle. A spin-up/spin-down process would introduce a long delay between the time of accretion and the explosion. As a white dwarf gains mass, it also gains angular momentum, which speeds up its spin. If the white dwarf rotates fast enough, its spin can help support it, allowing it to cross the 1.4-solar-mass barrier and become a super-Chandrasekhar-mass star. Once accretion stops, the white dwarf will gradually slow down. Eventually, the spin isn't enough to counteract gravity, leading to a Type Ia supernova.
"Our work is new because we show that spin-up and spin-down of the white dwarf have important consequences. Astronomers therefore must take angular momentum of accreting white dwarfs seriously, even though it's very difficult science," explained Di Stefano.
The spin-down process could produce a time delay of up to a billion years between the end of accretion and the supernova explosion. This would allow the companion star to age and evolve into a second white dwarf, and any surrounding material to dissipate.
In our Galaxy, scientists estimate that there are three Type Ia supernovae every thousand years. If a typical super-Chandrasekhar-mass white dwarf takes millions of years to spin down and explode, then calculations suggest that there should be dozens of pre-explosion systems within a few thousand light-years of Earth.
Those supernova precursors will be difficult to detect. However, upcoming wide-field surveys conducted at facilities like Pan-STARRS and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope should be able to spot them.
"We don't know of any super-Chandrasekhar-mass white dwarfs in the Milky Way yet, but we're looking forward to hunting them out," said co-author Rasmus Voss of Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands.
The physicist Enrico Fermi once asked referring to visits to Earth by extraterrestrial civilizations: "Where are they?" The accurate answer might well be --destroyed by radiation from supernova explosions.
While there is, on average, only one supernova per galaxy per century, there is something on the order of 100 billion galaxies in the observable Universe. Taking 10 billion years for the age of the Universe (it's actually 13.7 billion, but stars didn't form for the first few hundred million), Dr. Richard Mushotzky of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, derived a figure of 1 billion supernovae per year, or 30 supernovae per second in the observable Universe.
Certain rare stars -real killers -type 11 stars, are core-collapse hypernova that generate deadly gamma ray bursts (GRBs). These long burst objects release 1000 times the non-neutrino energy release of an ordinary "core-collapse" supernova. Concrete proof of the core-collapse GRB model came in 2003.
It was made possible in part to a fortuitously "nearby" burst whose location was distributed to astronomers by the Gamma-ray Burst Coordinates Network (GCN). On March 29, 2003, a burst went off close enough that the follow-up observations were decisive in solving the gamma-ray burst mystery. The optical spectrum of the afterglow was nearly identical to that of supernova SN1998bw.
In addition, observations from x-ray satellites showed the same characteristic signature of "shocked" and "heated" oxygen that's also present in supernovae. Thus, astronomers were able to determine that the "afterglow" light of a relatively close gamma-ray burst (located "just" 2 billion light years away) resembled a supernova.
It isn't known if every hypernova is associated with a GRB. However, astronomers estimate only about one out of 100,000 supernovae produce a hypernova. This works out to about one gamma-ray burst per day, which is in fact what is observed.
What is almost certain is that the core of the star involved in a given hypernova is massive enough to collapse into a black hole (rather than a neutron star). So every GRB detected is also the "birth cry" of a new black hole.
Observations of T Pyxidis in the constellation Pyxis (the compass) using the International Ultraviolet Explorer satellite, indicate the white dwarf is part of a close binary system with a sun, and the pair are 3,260 light-years from Earth and much closer than the previous estimate of 6,000 light-years.
The white dwarf in the T Pyxidis system is a recurrent nova, which means it undergoes nova (thermonuclear) eruptions around every 20 years. The most recent known events were in 1967, 1944, 1920, 1902, and 1890. These explosions are nova rather than supernova events, and do not destroy the star, and have no effect on Earth. The astronomers do not know why the there has been a longer than usual interval since the last nova eruption.
Observations of the white dwarf during the nova eruptions suggest its mass is increasing, and pictures from the Hubble telescope of shells of material expelled during the previous explosions support the view. Models estimate the white dwarf's mass could reach the Chandrasekhar Limit in around 10 million years or less.
According to the scientists the supernova would result in gamma radiation with an energy equivalent to 1,000 solar flares simultaneously - enough to threaten Earth by production of nitrous oxides that would damage and perhaps destroy the ozone layer. The supernova would be as bright as all the other stars in the Milky Way put together. One of the astronomers, Dr Edward Sion, from Villanova University in Pennsylvania, said the supernova could occur "soon" on the timescales familiar to astronomers and geologists, but this is a long time in the future in human terms.
Astronomers think supernova explosions closer than 100 light years from Earth would be catastrophic, but the effects of events further away are unclear and would depend on how powerful the supernova is. The research team postulate it could be close enough and powerful enough to damage Earth, possibly severely, although other researchers, such as Professor Fillipenko of the Berkeley Astronomy Department, disagree with the calculations and believe the supernova, if it occurred, would be unlikely to damage the planet.
The image left is a composite Chandra X-ray (blue) and Palomar infrared (red and green) image of the supernova remnant W49B -a barrel-shaped nebula consisting of bright infrared rings around a glowing bar of intense X-radiation along the axis.
W49B was created when a massive star formed from a dense cloud of dust and gas, shone brightly for a few million years while spinning off rings of gas and pushing them away to form a nearly empty cavity around the star.
The star then exhausted its nuclear fuel and its core collapsed to form a black hole. Much of the gas around the black hole was pulled into it, but some, including material rich in iron and nickel was flung away in oppositely directed jets of gas traveling near the speed of light. When the jet hit the dense cloud surrounding the star, it flared out and drove a shock wave into the cloud.
An observer aligned with one these jets would have seen a gamma-ray burst, a blinding flash in which the concentrated power equals that of ten quadrillion Suns for a minute or so. The view perpendicular to the jets would be a less astonishing, although nonetheless spectacular supernova explosion. For W49B, the jet is tilted out of the plane of the sky by about 20 degrees, but the remains of the jet are visible as a hot X-ray emitting bar of gas.
W49B is about 35 thousand light years away, whereas the nearest known gamma-ray burst to Earth is several million light years away - most are billions of light years distant. And safe to Earthlings.
The Daily Galaxy via Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, NASA/JPL and Chandra Space Telescope/Harvard