Yet another supernova

Just when you’d given up hope of another starburst, a third type comes along unannounced! This third class of previously unidentified supernova could help explain some anomalous observations in the night sky and even how our bodies come to contain so much calcium.

Until recently, astronomers had assumed there were just two types of supernovae. The first two types of supernova are either hot, young giants that explode on to the scene violently as they collapse under their own weight, or old, dense white dwarves (type a1) that undergo a thermonuclear explosion to briefly add their light to the night sky.

However, a third class appeared in telescope images in early January, 2005 and scientists, seeing that it had recently begun the process of exploding, started collecting and combining data from different telescope sites around the world, measuring both the amount of material thrown off in the explosion and its chemical composition.

Avishay Gal-Yam and colleagues at the Weizmann Institute in Israel and teams in Canada, Chile, Italy, UK, and USA, soon realised that the new supernova was neither old and dense nor young and hot.

There was too little material being ejected by the 2005 supernova for it to be an exploding giant, but its remote location from stellar nurseries suggested it was old. Moreover, its chemical makeup did not match the second type of supernova. The scientists turned to a computer simulation to see if they could figure out what kind of stellar processes could give rise to this anomalous kind of starburst.

Type Ia supernovae are primarily composed of carbon and oxygen as seen in their spectra, but the newly discovered supernova has unusually high levels of calcium and titanium which derive from nuclear reactions of helium not carbon and oxygen. However, the astronomers were initially at a loss to explain the source of the helium. Their simulations suggested that a pair of white dwarves might have been involved, with one assimilating helium from the other. When the thief star’s helium load rises past a certain point, the explosion occurs. “The donor star is probably completely destroyed in the process, but we’re not quite sure about the fate of the thief star,” says Gal-Yam.

Helium theft may have led to a third class of supernova that gives rise to the calcium in your bones and the titanium in a replacement hip! (Credit: Gal-Yam, Weizmann Institute of Science.

These new supernovae are relatively dim, so may not be as rare as they at first seem. This might explain why calcium is so prevalent in the universe and so in life on earth. The existence of radioactive titanium from these supernovae might also preclude the need for exotic explanations, such as invoking dark matter, of positrons at the heart of our galaxy. “Dark matter may or may not exist,” says Gal-Yam, “but these positrons are perhaps just as easily accounted for by the third type of supernova.”


Avishay Gal-Yam homepage

Tubes in space

Carbon nanotubes form in space but use a metal-free chemistry until now unavailable to chemists on Earth. The discovery is a surprising outcome of laboratory experiments designed by Joseph Nuth at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland, and his colleagues. They were hoping to understand how carbon atoms are recycled in stellar nurseries, the regions of space where stars and planets are born, but the finding could have applications in nanotechnology, as well as help explain some characteristics of supernovae.

Writing in the journal Astrophys J Lett, Nuth and colleagues explain how astrochemistry makes carbon nanotubes without requiring a metal catalyst. Nanotubes are produced, they say, when graphite dust particles are exposed to a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gases, conditions that exist in interstellar space.

The finding corroborates the discovery of graphite whiskers, bigger than nano nanotubes, in three meteorites. The meteoric discovery hinted at why some supernovae appear dimmer and farther away than they ought to be based on calculations using current models. Nuth’s approach is a variation of a well-established way to produce gasoline or other liquid fuels from coal. It’s known as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, and researchers suspect that it could have produced at least some of the simple carbon-based compounds in the early solar system. Nuth proposes that the nanotubes yielded by such reactions could be the key to the recycling of the carbon that gets released when carbon-rich grains are destroyed by supernova explosions.

Stellar Nursery
A stellar nursery could be home to carbon nanotube factories (Credit: NASA,

The structure of the carbon nanotubes produced by Nuth and colleagues was determined by materials scientist Yuki Kimura, of Tohoku University, Japan, using transmission electron microscopy. He observed particles on which the original smooth graphite gradually morphed into an unstructured region and finally to an area rich in tangled hair-like masses. A closer look with an even more powerful microscope showed that these tendrils were in fact cup-stacked carbon nanotubes, resembling a stack of disposable drinking cups with the bottoms removed. If further testing indicates that the new method is suitable for materials-science applications, it could supplement, or even replace, the familiar way of making nanotubes, explains Kimura.

Researchers might also now evaluate whether graphite whiskers absorb light. A positive result would lend credence to the proposition that the presence of these molecules in space affects the observations of some supernovae.


Astrophys J Lett, 2010, 710, L98-L101

Black hole

The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has helped an international team of astronomers to detect a stellar mass black hole that lies at a much greater distance from Earth than any observed before. The black hole is in the spiral galaxy NGC 300, about six million light years away in the constellation Sculptor.

The spiral galaxy NGC 300 lying in the constellation Sculptor (Credit: Galex/NASA)
The spiral galaxy NGC 300 lying in the constellation Sculptor (Credit: Galex/NASA)

Paul Crowther and Vik Dhillon, of the University of Sheffield, UK, Robin Barnard and Simon Clark of the The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK, and Stefania Carpano and Andy Pollock of ESAC, in Madrid, Spain report the black hole which has a mass of about twenty times that of the Sun in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The stellar-mass black holes found in our Milky Way galaxy commonly weigh up to ten times the mass of the Sun. The newly discovered black hole is not only the most distant, but the second most massive stellar-mass black hole ever found. It is also entwined with a star that will soon become a black hole itself.

Lead author Crowther, explains: “This is the most distant stellar-mass black hole ever weighed, and it’s the first one we’ve seen outside our own galactic neighbourhood, the Local Group. The black hole’s curious partner is a Wolf-Rayet star, which also has a mass of about twenty times as much as the Sun. Wolf-Rayet stars are near the end of their lives and expel most of their outer layers into their surroundings before exploding as supernovae, with their cores imploding to form black holes.

An artist's impression of the newly discovered black hole and its stellar companion (Credit: ESO/L. Calçada)
An artist's impression of the newly discovered black hole and its stellar companion (Credit: ESO/L. Calçada)

In less than a million years, a blink of the eye cosmologically speaking, the Wolf-Rayet star will explode as a supernova and its remnants collapse into a black hole. Only one other system of this type has previously been seen, but other systems comprising a black hole and a companion star are not unknown to astronomy. The existence of such systems hints at an underlying galactic chemistry. Astronomers believe that a higher concentration of heavy chemical elements influences how a massive star evolves, increasing how much matter it sheds, resulting in a smaller black hole when the remnant finally collapses.


Monthly Notices Royal Astronom Soc, 2010, in press

Paul Crowther