Astronomers have identified the early warning sign of an imminent supernova: a stellar belch that could indicate the star will explode within a month or two.
Ke-Jung Chen / School of Physics and Astronomy, Univ. Minnesota
Forecasting when stars will die in giant explosions may one day be possible by looking for the warning outbursts they release beforehand, researchers say.
Supernovas are the most powerful stellar explosions in the universe, visible all the way to the edge of the cosmos. These stars detonate for two known reasons: either from gorging on too much mass stolen from a companion star or by running out of fuel and abruptly collapsing.
Astronomers have suggested that stars can give off smaller explosions just before they go supernova. To find out more about supernovas, researchers used three telescopes — the Palomar Observatory, the Very Large Array and NASA's Swift mission — to investigate a star 500 million light-years away. The star, which had about 50 times the mass of the sun, ultimately detonated as a supernova named SN 2010mc.
The researchers' data suggest that 40 days before the final explosion, the dying star produced a giant outburst, releasing as much matter as 1 percent the mass of the sun — about 3,330 times the mass of Earth — at about 4.5 million mph (7.2 million km/h). [Photos of Great Supernova Explosions]
"What is surprising is the short time between the precursor eruption and the eventual supernova explosion; one month is an extremely tiny fraction of the 10-million-year lifespan of a star," said one of the study authors, Mansi Kasliwal at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, Calif.